This week, negotiators from Iran, the five permanent UN Security Council members (United States, Russia, China, Britain, France), and Germany are meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the first time since negotiations broke down eight months ago in Moscow. I don’t expect any major breakthroughs. Over the weekend, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, spoke before a large crowd in Tabriz. He expressed his opinion of the upcoming talks with a few zingers:
"This kind of negotiation does not serve any purpose. It will not reach any results ... During the past 15 years, the Americans requested Iran to negotiate with them two or three times, stressing that negotiations are very necessary, urgent and vital. One or two executive officials went and negotiated with them. But as soon as they had no response to Iran's reasonable statements, they broke off negotiations. And by using their global media networks, they pretended that Iran had broken off the negotiations."
When asked if the U.S. and its allies were bringing something to the table that might make Iran rethink, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell stated:
" ... we do have a serious updated proposal, and our proposal does include reciprocal measures that encourage Iran to make concrete steps to begin addressing the international community’s concerns ... there is time and space for diplomacy, but it’s not infinite time ... "
Iran will continue to drag this process out to give themselves time to do what they want with their nuclear program. They’ve observed that North Korea has moved forward with their nuclear weapons development with no major repercussions other than sanctions. The only wild card for the Iranians is the possibility that the Israelis may conduct a direct attack on their facilities.
Here’s a scenario for you: the Israelis attack, and in response, Iran makes good on their threats to close down the Hormuz Strait. The U.S. Energy Information Administration calls it the most import oil chokepoint in the world. Roughly 35% of all seaborne traded oil flows through it.
You might say, would not the U.S. and its allies be able to keep the strait open? They could, but not without a significant military cost. Iran has a significant military capability to mine the area and attack ships with cruise missiles which are hard to defend against. U.S. defense analysts got a wake up call in 2002 in a war game that at the time was the largest ever held. According to press reports of the war game:
"The victory of the force modeled after a Persian Gulf state — a composite of Iran and Iraq — astounded sponsors…
In the war game, scores of adversary speedboats and larger naval vessels had been shadowing and hectoring the Blue Team fleet for days. The Blue Team defenses also faced cruise missiles fired simultaneously from land and from warplanes, as well as the swarm of speedboats firing heavy machine guns and rockets — and pulling alongside to detonate explosives on board.
" ... it illustrated a cheap way to beat a very expensive fleet."
When you add to the mix that because of budget issues, our military capability is declining, you have a problem. There is now only one carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. had been maintaining two because of the Iranian threats to close down the strait. I think the U.S. and its allies would prevail in a military conflict, but it wouldn’t be pretty. The best hope at the meeting is an agreement for follow on talks and more diplomacy.