No sooner do we establish that (a) Iran wants strategic ambiguity, and (b) Iran’s got it, than we see a fresh round of strategic ambiguity busting out. Strategic ambiguity looks to be the gift that will keep on giving.
You might think the big news from the last 24 hours would be the report that Iran declined to load a Greek tanker with oil for Greek refineries, thus sparking concerns that the Iranians will cut off oil to hard-pressed Greece entirely. Tehran has already officially stopped deliveries to France and the UK. The Europeans are worried that a cut in Iranian oil could sink any hope of a recovery for the Greeks – and that Iran might threaten to extend the embargo to Italy, which also depends on Iranian oil.
In the wake of this report, the Iranian government hastened to announce that it hasn’t cut off shipments to Greece. So it isn’t clear what’s going on, and strategic ambiguity can check another item off the to-do list. Gasoline has surged to about $8.10 a gallon in the UK (not yet the $9.00 a gallon being trumpeted by Iranian media), so, check, check!
But that’s not really the big news. The big news is that the Iranian parliament is working on legislation that would require foreign warships to obtain permission from Iran to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. How could Iran enforce such a requirement? Well, that’s exactly the fun of strategic ambiguity. Maybe they’ll try, and maybe they won’t. As the Iranians say, it will depend on us.
Apart from a last-ditch resort to something like mining the Strait of Hormuz (SOH), the most likely Iranian approach would be to take advantage of an incident in the SOH, or even create one, to justify cranking up Iranian oversight of “safety and security” by half a notch or so. A diplomatic win on that exploratory probe could be leveraged to increase Iran’s effective control incrementally – unless each new measure was directly challenged. If the US were unwilling to do the challenging, strategic ambiguity would be a lot more fun for Iran than for the rest of us.
You do need a quiescent partner on the other side of the Strait for an oblique approach of this kind. And sure enough, besides conducting a naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz (SOH) in mid-February, Iran concluded a new naval cooperation agreement with Oman on the 12th, and plans to conduct a joint naval exercise with Oman in March. Earlier in February, moreover, the Iranian navy’s commander stated that the Iranian naval task force in the Red Sea would visit the port of Salalah, Oman in March. That would be a first since the 1979 revolution, and would put the Iranian navy in the company of all the other global navies in the region (including the US Navy), which visit the major port of Salalah on a regular basis. Iran is establishing a new naval posture as we speak.
The new Iranian naval posture is being strategically ambiguous all over Saudi Arabia. During the Iranian task force’s triumphal sideswipe at Syria – where the ships reportedly entered port although the Pentagon “has no evidence of it” (see my comment at this link for a summary of data points on the question) – an Iranian parliamentarian announced that Iran was displaying her naval power in the region, as a warning and a portent. The ships had stopped in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea port of Jeddah on the way to the Mediterranean, so this saber-rattling didn’t sit well with the Saudis.
Therefore, the Saudi ministry of defense has just issued a statement clarifying the basis on which it authorized the Iranian warships to visit Jeddah. And the salient point is that Saudi Arabia wasn’t down for the “naval warning” business. The Saudis understood they were agreeing to a port visit for ships on a training cruise.
In general, the Saudis are feeling squeezed by Iran; a Die Welt report from 15 February, summarized at the al-Akhbar website on the 21st, indicated that Riyadh sponsored a Gulf States meeting in January to discuss Iran’s continued arms sales to Hezbollah. The Saudis didn’t openly disclose anything we don’t already know about the Iranian smuggling routes, but apparently they excluded Qatar from the meeting, because they don’t consider the emirate “reliable on issues related to Iran.”
Meanwhile, down south of the Saudi border, Iran continues to supply the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a Shia group that operates as a scourge of Riyadh as well as Sana’a. On 15 February, Yemeni authorities reported intercepting another ship from Iran carrying heavy weapons for the Houthis. It is accepted fact on the Arabian Peninsula that Iran’s paramilitary operates from islands in the southern Red Sea, supporting activities in both Yemen and Eritrea. In a recently translated al-Arabiya interview from June 2011, a Kuwaiti professor stated that Iran leases three islands from Eritrea and uses them for military training.
(This particular claim may be overly specific, but its generic point is justified by numerous reports from regional sources that the Qods force is operating in the islands of the southern Red Sea. These islands form a sort of lily pad network between Yemen and the coast of Africa, through which Iran is credibly reported to facilitate the transit of extremists and arms.)
Strategic ambiguity: exacerbating distrust, ill-feeling, and armed conflict in the region. Check.