The recent EU oil embargo against Iran follows the news that Britain, America and France are sending warships through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran had threatened to close in response to growing sanctions. The strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz cannot be overstated, nor can the clear signals being sent by this unified show of force. 35 per cent of the world's seaborne crude shipments pass through this waterway, and the 'naval exercises' being undertaken there by both parties are no practise mission.
Earlier this month, General Ataollah Salehi, commander of Iran's armed forces, threatened to respond with "full force" if any US carrier ventured into the region's waters and the US response has been equally unequivocal. Meanwhile, Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered in less than mysterious circumstances, as the US sent its military chief to Israel on Friday, to urge the country to keep the channels of communication open with Washington, amid concerns of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, a concerning scenario given its 300 actual, not potential nuclear warheads.
Obama's 2009 Cairo address spoke of "a new beginning between the US and Muslims based upon mutual interest and mutual respect", but current policies on Iran are an extension of the Bush doctrine, which regards Iran as a threat to America's strategic interests in the region.
The US has a long and established presence through its military bases in the Middle East. In fact, if you join the dots, you can draw a fairly tight circle around Iran, something the Iranians have noticed. Meanwhile, as the Arab revolutions attempt to throw out longstanding dictators, a new leadership is emerging. While the despots were largely US allies, America is not viewed particularly favourably by the Arab people, suggesting truly democratic governments might not provide the sort of regional cooperation the US has long been accustomed to. A 2011 poll showed that far from seeing the U.S. as a leader in the post-Arab Spring environment, the Arab people view "U.S. interference in the Arab world" as the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the region, second only to the Palestinian occupation. And whilst Iran is not viewed particularly positively either, polls indicate that when Arabs were asked questions about Iran or its nuclear program, and the U.S. and its threats of sanctions or military action were a part of the question, they would indicate strong support for Iran and its defiance on nuclear issues. Current sanctions are likely to bolster support for Iran in the region and crucially, reduce support for America and its allies.
Though the nuclear threat posed by Iran is held to be the imperative for current action, an April 2010 intelligence report to Congress makes clear that the Iranian threat is not military. On the thorny nuclear issue, the report states that "Iran's nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy." Whilst this is hardly reassuring, the November 2011 IAEA report suggests this 'deterrent' has yet to be actualised. So, despite the breakdown of talks between Iran and the EU , there is still time for a diplomatic resolution, particularly since EU officials say the Iranians have sent signals recently about resuming talks.
Surrounded by US military bases, locked in a cold war with the US, and all too aware of military incursions into neighbouring countries, Iran may be seeking a deterrent to ensure its national sovereignty. The fact that a 2010 poll found that 71% of Iranians favoured the development of nuclear weapons, suggests the government is not alone in its concerns.
Considering the embargo, it is worth noting the real cost to our economies, not to mention to poverty stricken Iranians. Iran has experienced sanctions since the 1979 revolution but the current oil ban is the most significant toughening yet. Europe accounts for around 20% of Iran's oil exports and a hike in oil prices is the last thing our sluggish economic recovery needs. In addition, critics say the measure will do little to change the course of the Iranian nuclear program and the embargo could end up hurting the EU more than Iran. Japan, China and India have all baulked at the proposal, suggesting it would be ineffective and damaging to the global economy. This lack of consensus means any loss in sales for Iran from Europe will be offset by the hike in the cost of crude, compensating any loss of revenue.
The spread of nuclear weapons is a cause for concern and commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty treaty essential. But while Nuclear powers continue to ignore Article VI which requires them "to liquidate their nuclear stockpiles and pursue disarmament", other states will continue to view nuclear weapons as the only guarantee of security. Historical precedents indicate sanctions have little to no effect on Iran's political decisions - instead, the latest embargo is guaranteed to make life harder for average people both in Iran and Europe. Collective punishment will do little to convince Iranians that the West isn't 'the great Satan' and is sure to bolster support for Iran in the Arab world. Threatening Iran through so-called 'hard power diplomacy' is not diplomacy. Europe needs to return to talks and move away from an over-emotional US led discourse which allows skewed ideological imperatives to trump national interests and global stability.