Mehdi Hasan: Are we heading for an "accidental" war with Iran?

The Islamic Republic's vow to close the Strait of Hormuz, in response to sanctions, could give an excuse for action.

US warns Iran over threat to block oil route

screams the headline on the BBC website. According to the report:

The US Navy has said it will not tolerate disruption to a vital oil-trade route, following an Iranian threat to close it.

Iran warned it would shut the Strait of Hormuz if the West imposed more sanctions over its nuclear programme.

The BBC report quotes US Fifth Fleet spokeswoman Rebecca Rebarich as saying that the US navy would be ready to act if required:

The US navy is a flexible, multi-capable force committed to regional security and stability, always ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation.

Reading the BBC headline and the hawkish quote from Rebarich, I couldn't help but think of a recent piece I read on the Huffington Post website, headlined:

The Coming Accidental War with Iran

The author of the piece, Lyric Hughes Hale, argues that

. . . due to the lack of understanding between our government and Iranian leaders who have been isolated from the rest of the world, war will not be a decision, but a mistake.

She quotes from a recent comment piece in the Los Angeles Times by Trita Parsi, head of a Washington think tank focused on Iran and author of the upcoming book, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy With Iran, who wrote:

In Iran, political cannibalism within the Iranian elite has reached new heights. While this has not necessarily given birth to a new Iranian adventurism (beyond the harsh rhetoric), it has paralyzed the state and weakened its ability to maneuver in a changing strategic environment. This is particularly the case when it comes to crucial issues such as its relations with the United States.

. . . The U.S. military leadership is rightfully worried about this situation. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, has repeatedly raised the lack of communication between the United States and Iran as a major concern in the last few weeks.

"We are not talking to Iran so we don't understand each other," Mullen said last month. "If something happens ... it's virtually assured that we won't get it right." The lack of communication has planted seeds for miscalculation, Mullen argued. And miscalculations often lead to dangerous escalations.

Mullen's diagnosis is on target, as evidenced by the escalation in Iranian bluster. Talking to the Iranians is not guaranteed to resolve the fundamental issues that have created this dangerous atmosphere. But it might ensure that in the midst of the barking, there isn't an accidental bite.

So, will the accidental bite be the closing of the Strait of Hormuz? As the report on the BBC website notes:

The Strait of Hormuz links the Gulf - and the oil-producing states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - to the Indian Ocean. About 40% of the world's tanker-borne oil passes through it.

In recent months, plenty of analysts have warned that an American and/or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would prompt the closing of the Strait of Hormuz - which is only 20 miles wide - and send oil prices through the roof. Few seem to have anticipated the reverse: that is, a pre-emptive closing of the Strait of Hormuz by the Iranians - annoyed by the new set of sanctions imposed on them by the west - which then offers hawks in Tel Aviv, Washington and, let's be under no illusions, London a casus belli for military action against the self-styled Islamic Republic.

But, if one of the arguments offered against war with Iran has always centred on the danger to the global economy of the Iranian regime cutting off not just its own oil exports (which, at around 3.5 million barrels produced per day, amounts to 2.5 percent of the world's oil supply) but the rest of the region's too, via the afore-mentioned blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, why hasn't it had much traction? Why do so many seemingly well-informed western pundits seem so relaxed about the catastrophic economic consequences of a war with Iran?

"I think the market has paid too little attention to the possibility of an attack on Iran. It's still an unlikely event, but more likely than oil traders have been expecting," remarked Bob McNally, head of the consultancy Rapidan Group and a former energy adviser to the White House, in November. McNally added that he believed oil prices could surge as high as $175 a barrel if the Strait of Hormuz is closed by the Iranians.

Meanwhile, according to the most benign of four scenarios presented in a recent paper by Greg Sharenow, a portfolio manager at bond house PIMCO and a former Goldman Sachs oil trader, oil prices would likely spike to at around $140 a barrel if Iran were to be attacked next year.

Noting the possibility of an Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, Sharenow calls this "the Armageddon scenario" in which "oil prices could soar, significantly constraining global growth. Forecasting prices in the prior scenarios is dangerous enough. So, we won't even begin to forecast a cap or target price in this final Doomsday scenario."

Accidental wars. Armageddon. Doomsday. Bring on 2012, eh?

As we note on the cover of this week's New Year's issue of the New Statesman:

And you thought 2011 was bad. . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.