In recent weeks, two seminal events have occurred that make war with Iran more likely. First, Iran (currently struggling with growing domestic unrest because of the horrific economic conditions in that country) has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Second, Iranian-backed Houthi Rebels in Yemen have attacked two Saudi Arabian-flagged oil tankers operating in the Bab-el-Mandeb.
The U.S. government has ranked seven of the world’s most important “oil chokepoints”—strategic waterways through which a majority of the world’s oil is transported. If these waterways are blocked, the world economy would grind to a halt.
The Strait of Hormuz divides the coastlines of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Bab-el-Mandeb links the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. It is located between Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula and touches Djibouti and Eritrea.
The Strait of Hormuz, however, is more important. According to Bloomberg, the Bab-el-Mandeb is “significantly less crucial than the better-known Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran” for shipping crude oil. Combined, though, Iran’s recent actions are meant to be strong signals to the United States (and its allies in Israel and the Sunni Arab states).
Since taking office, President Trump has reversed course on his predecessor’s Iran policy. This is part of the Trump Administration’s overall pressure campaign designed to extract better deals from other countries, friend and foe alike. Trump is now stuck between either abandoning the region to Iran or standing firm with our imperfect allies—even at the risk of a wider war.
A greater conflict is exactly what is shaping up between the Sunni and Shiite spheres of the Islamic world in the Middle East.
Previously, the Islamic world was torn apart by another Sunni-Shiite conflict, the Iran-Iraq War. In that bloody war, which spanned eight years between 1980 and 1988, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein attempted to annex the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Even with financial support from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—and with implicit backing from the United States—Saddam’s Arab army couldn’t achieve its goals.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians began targeting all Sunni Arab oil tankers operating in the Strait of Hormuz—notably those belonging to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—in retaliation for Iraq having targeted Iranian oil-tankers beginning around 1981. This prompted a wider American intervention to protect the Saudi and Kuwaiti tankers (by re-flagging the tankers as American ships and having the U.S. Navy escort them through contested waters, such as those of the Strait of Hormuz).
Yet, even at the height of the so-called “Tanker War” Saudi Arabia never took the drastic step of altering their oil flows as they did this last week over their two tankers being attacked by Iranian-backed Houthi Rebels out of Yemen. Riyadh’s decision to suspend oil flows through the Bab-el-Mandeb undoubtedly will cause oil prices to spike globally. And, given the unrest occurring in Iran, as well as the fact that the Trump Administration appears only to be getting started with its pressure campaign against Iran, expect hostilities in the region to escalate.
Further, I would anticipate spikes in the global price of oil for the foreseeable future (by the way, this undoubtedly would make Moscow happy, since Russia depends on higher-than-average oil prices to sustain its economy and military modernization program). Should these increases continue for the foreseeable future—and if Iran continued both with its illicit nuclear weapons program and regional expansion—the United States will be forced to intervene military.
Also, eventually, Washington will have no choice but to either enforce its strict de-nuclearization policy for Iran or to step back, be humiliated by Iran, and watch the Iranians run roughshod over the region (since there is little hope that the Saudi-led Sunni Arab states will fare any better against Iran than Saddam’s armies ever did).
It is unlikely the Trump White House would favor this outcome.
Instead, the administration will more likely seek to escalate the situation with some form of direct American involvement (a combination of naval operations to keep the vital oil chokepoints open and potential air strikes to attack suspected Iranian nuclear sites as well as Iranian naval bases).
Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab states (and likely Israel) recognize that they alone cannot defeat Iran. They would prefer to escalate tensions as high as possible, prove unable to push Iran back, and prompt a direct American military engagement against Iran.
As for Iran’s besieged mullahs: they would prefer to distract their angry population by fighting the infidels of the West (and the apostates of the Sunni states) rather than be overthrown by popular unrest at home.
War—whether limited or unlimited—with Iran is coming.
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