Monday, June 05, 2006

Khamenei Spoke of Jeopardizing Oil Shipments - Not a Blockade

In his most explicit threat yet, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared Sunday: "If you make any mistake, definitely shipment of energy from this region will be seriously jeopardized. You have to know this."

He added, addressing the West: "You will never be able to protect the energy supply in this region. You will not be able to do it."

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice shot back to "Fox News Sunday: "We shouldn't place too much emphasis on a threat of this kind," because Iran also has an interest in protecting its major source of revenues.

Both sides know that Tehran gets 80% of its income from oil exports. They also know that more than 60% of the world's oil supply passes through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which links the Gulf to the Indian Ocean and shipping lanes to the Far East. Much of the shipping sails close to Iran’s coast.

DEBKAfile’s Gulf sources suspect that the tough talk indicates that a secret dialogue is afoot somewhere in the world and has reached the stage of muscle-flexing, or even a point of decision. These same sources did confirm the existence of bilateral negotiations three months ago in Washington and Geneva, which broke up without agreement. They are less sure about the resumption. READ MORE

Whether or not these talks have resumed, DEBKAfile’s military sources affirm that the United States, Iran, the Gulf emirates and Israel are pushing ahead with preparations for a showdown over Tehran’s nuclear plans - as first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly on May 19:

Washington has begun signaling allied governments in the Persian Gulf and Israel that a US military operation against Iran’s nuclear sites is in the works for 12 to 18 months hence at the soonest. They were advised to start making their own preparations.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive Washington and Middle East military sources reveal that the Bush administration has for the first time translated its ambiguous statements - which never “ruled out any options, including the military”- into a clear decision to put preparations in train for likely action within a timeframe ending in the second half of 2007.

The Iranians having made no bones about their refusal to backtrack on uranium enrichment, teams of American officials have fanned out on highly confidential missions to the capitals of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Turkey and Israel. They raised three issues related to possible American strike action:

1. A request to use their bases for US naval and air force attacks on Iran.

2. The backlash potential from Iran against nations supporting US attacks.

3. The supply of advanced American weaponry to the nations in the line of fire as their deterrence against an Iranian counter-attack and as a strategic counterweight to Iran’s missile arsenal.

From their discreet American visitors, the regional governments obtained an outline of the state of play:

US intelligence has finished mapping out the Iranian sites whose destruction its experts estimate will terminate the rogue nuclear program and its aims. The maps take into account American assessments that around 35% of Iran’s designated nuclear sites are dummies built to hoodwink American or Israeli attackers and cause them to throw away their logistic resources and ordinance for nothing.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources disclose that American intelligence experts are convinced they can distinguish between the real sites and the empty buildings and tunnels constructed as decoys. Even if the Iranians build fresh decoys or relocate active sites, America’s network of spy satellites and planes have them all under close enough surveillance to discover their new locations, and determine which fake installations have covertly been made operational.

End of the DEBKA-Net-Weekly 254 excerpt.

Tehran is undoubtedly fully aware of America’s intentions and has been girding up for a military contingency for some time.

In its grand “Great Prophet” sea and air maneuver from March 31 to April 6, the Iranian armed forces displayed a glittering array of new hardware, including various sea missiles, flying boats and submarines, all presented as capable of disrupting oil shipping in the Gulf.

In his warning this week, Khamenei spoke of “seriously jeopardizing” oil supplies, but fought shy of an outright threat to block the Hormuz Strait. DEBKAfile’s Iranian sources believe the supreme leader was thinking in terms of the disruptions of August 1987 and again in 1988, when Iran strewed Gulf waters and the Hormuz Strait with M-08 contact mines of Russian manufacture. The oil traffic proceeded nonetheless in convoys escorted by US warships and aircraft. The convoy escort and minesweeping operation was called Operation Earnest Will. Between August 1987 and April 1988, one supertanker, the 415,000-ton Bridgeton, was hit as well as a US frigate, the Samuel B. Roberts. But although the supplies moved slowly, they never came to a stop.

Now, too, the Iranian ruler is not talking of total stoppage of Gulf navigation, although he did not rule out the possibility of a greater number of oil tankers and US warships falling victim than was the case 18 years ago.

Secretary Rice pooh-poohed the threat, but DEBKAfile’s military and Iranian sources advise caution. The Iranian leadership will not stand by and wait for Washington to finish all its military preparations. Should diplomacy – overt and covert – fail to solve the impasse posed by its nuclear plans, Tehran appears to be gearing up for an attempt to force Washington and its Gulf allies into a round of limited hostilities as a means of deterring them from an all-out attack on its nuclear installations.