What a coincidence. Two U.S. aircraft carriers are sailing off the Iranian coast and a third is on its way, just as Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz. Another Iranian scientist has been assassinated in the heart of Tehran, while Japan has joined the oil embargo against Iran and Russia has warned Tehran against enriching uranium at an additional nuclear facility. All this in just one week.
In the coming days, the EU is expected to discuss sanctions against Iranian oil exports. Senior officials in the West will continue trying to persuade China to purchase oil from Saudi Arabia instead of Iran, and to persuade Russia to join efforts against Iran's nuclear program. Warnings from Moscow are simply not enough. Of course, everyone is asking how Iran will react, if at all, in the face of the noose tightening around it.
It appears that finally, in 2012, the world understands that the Iranian nuclear program constitutes a real threat. Israel succeeded in turning this into a confrontation between Iran and the international community, not just the Israel-Iran clash that it had been in the past. "Israel, together with the U.S. Congress, has succeeded in forcing the Obama government to take action, finally, against Iran," a senior Western diplomat told me on Thursday. The White House does not want to be dragged into additional conflicts during an election year. It is far too concerned about a steep rise in the price of oil. This is why it is preventing Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz; hence the aircraft carriers.
Iran is feeling the pressure: It is blaming Israel and threatening vengeance. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual and supreme leader, is threatening to respond to the new sanctions by closing the Strait of Hormuz. Yet he knows this would be a casus belli [a justification of war].
The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the international intervention in Libya proved to the Iranians that countries in the West can also take action when goaded. Tehran also knows that its Sunni neighbors, led by the Saudis, will not lose any sleep over what is happening to Iran, and will likely be happy to help, albeit discreetly.
Saudi Arabia, which produces 10 million barrels of oil a day, is already planning to increase its output. A formula has even been found to satisfy China while hurting Iran: Beijing will condition its oil purchases from Iran on a reduced price. Tehran will have no choice but to lower prices leading its revenues (80 percent of which comes from oil) to plummet. We also have to take into consideration the unstable domestic situation in Iran, which followed the June 2009 elections that the regime stole out of its own nation's hands.
Tehran's room to maneuver is growing limited. The country's currency is depreciating, its economy is collapsing and its friend in Damascus is in serious trouble. So what is left to recommend to Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Perhaps a backpacking trip in South America while the nuclear program, despite everything, continues. Oops, we forgot that those two barely speak.