Baghdad, Monday, February 29, 2010, almost 15 months in the future, and Israel has attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities. What might the consequences be…
The shutting down by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard of all maritime traffic crossing the Straits of Hormuz, through which 17 million barrels of oil or nearly 25 per cent of world supplies flow each day, signalled a further escalating of tensions in the Middle East that sent the price of oil up by $163 to $228 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange this morning.
This comes two days after Operation Persepolis on Saturday morning, in which Israeli pilotless drones destroyed the Iranian uranium enrichment plant at Natanz in central Iran and the Bushehr nuclear power plant on the shores of the Gulf. The first strike resulted in the deaths of at least 19 employees inside the nuclear compound that experts believe operates tens of thousands of nuclear centrifuges; no information is available on the Russian-built Bushehr plant.
It is unclear whether the United States, which has a permanent residual force of 45,000 troops in neighbouring Iraq, agreed to or had prior knowledge of the strike. Israeli media had reported earlier that the IDF was studying possible precision strikes against the Iranian nuclear reactors that do not include coordination with the Pentagon. President Barack Obama is said to be in consultation with world leaders and the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Defence, and will make a statement this evening that is expected to be publicly supportive of Israel.
The Belgian Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, is heading a high-level delegation to Tehran that includes the British Prime Minister, David Milliband, and the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to meet the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The delegation issued a joint press release that criticised the “unwarranted Israeli use of force” and called upon Iran to show restraint. The Iranian government put its military on high alert immediately after the strikes, but is believed to be awaiting a visit tomorrow from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, before taking any retaliatory action.
Meanwhile a major airlift is being organised by the US and European countries to fly their citizens out of the Arab Gulf states that lie in close proximity to the destroyed Bushehr plant; foreigners crowded airports on Sunday seeking tickets out of the region and a number of carriers suspended their inbound flights. India, which has a significant expatriate presence in the Gulf, ordered all available government-owned and commercial planes to carry its citizens out of the region.
There are currently 12 million foreigners residing in the West-allied Arab Gulf states, where US military bases have been put on high alert. Saudi Arabia has the largest number of expatriates, with 6.5 million, followed by the UAE, where expatriates constitute about 80 percent of the population of five million. Panic buying has resulted in skyrocketing prices of essential food items as Gulf residents hurried to stockpile supplies. Stock exchanges were closed today as investors rushed to the markets to offload their shares on Sunday, mirroring a sharp decline in Western equity markets led by the Dow Jones, which lost 17 per cent upon opening this morning.
In a rousing speech on Sunday during the so-called Two Million Man March in Tehran, Mr Ahmedinejad promised to retaliate against what he called the “despicable Zionist entity” vowing to “wipe it off the face of the map once and for all”. Sporadic protests have erupted across Iran with demonstrators demanding that the country uses all possible force to destroy Israel, along with the American bases in the region.
A spokesman for the firebrand Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, who declined to be identified, announced that the movement is willing to assist Iran in gaining “strategic positions closer to the enemy borders” with or without the Iraqi government’s consent. Similar statements of support were issued by Hamas and Hizbollah.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is meeting President Obama in the White House today to discuss the repercussions of Operation Persepolis, said his country will “do everything in its power to eliminate the possibility of another Holocaust”. Mr Netanyahu refused to comment on whether Israel would consider the use of nuclear weapons if Iran retaliates, maintaining the country’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. The former US President Jimmy Carter has previously stated that Israel has an arsenal of at least 150 atomic weapons.
The Pentagon estimates that the Iranian government, which has mandatory military conscription, has approximately 20 million men available for military service, four times the total number of the citizens of Israel, which also maintains a conscription service. Earlier this year in a military parade Iran unveiled its Shahab 4 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is capable of carrying nuclear warheads to a range of 2,300km, putting Israeli cities well within reach. Yesterday an Iranian military spokesman said that it had renamed the 1,000km range Zelzal 4, or earthquake missiles, the “Tel Aviv Zelzal”.
This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday December 14th 2008