Beware The Ides Of March

Soothsayer's warning before Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC.

By Mathew Maavak

02/07/06 "ICH" -- -- If Julius - regarded as one of the greatest Caesars - couldn’t take note, the leader of the current superpower should. This March, his actions may spark off a conflict from which the world might never recover.

There is no superstition needed for the coming month, as too many converging forces are spiraling out of hand to tip the world into a precipice burning in peak oil.

History was created on Jan 1 when Russia abruptly cut off gas supplies to Europe for a day; a brutal reminder that the stakes in the current game can be raised dramatically at will. It caught the world by surprise, converted millions into news addicts and brought about the realization that we are living on borrowed time, in an era of strained energy resources.

Unless saner elements among the Bush administration prevail, the next neocon project might involve playing Alexander the Great vs. Persia. That ancient conquest took the Greeks right to the doors of India, and history is repeating itself, except that it may have run out of cycles by March, or culminate in a pact for a strategic future in New Delhi.

In March, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei may summit the results of his findings on Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council. The United States will be pressing for sanctions, and it is still unclear which way China or Russia may vote, though absention is the most likely outcome. Either way, the neocons are already prodding President George W. Bush along a unilateral path to conflict.

Undoubtedly, Iran's continued uranium enrichment program is a destabilizing factor in the Middle East. It is not just Israel - the only nuclear armed nation in the region- which may feel threatened. The entry of a nuclear Iran would shift colossal power back to the Persians, and in the long-run, enable it to control oil supplies in the region.

The Iranians may feel justified in having nukes in a hostile terrain; a feeling further amplified by the egregious policies of successive US administrations. When there was time to engage, or even congage (contain + engage), it preferred to concircle (contain + encircle) Tehran with sanctions. Instead of lending moral support to the nascent democratic aspirations of Iranian youths - which would have immensely benefited Washington - sanctions eventually brought about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardliner president who is saber-rattling the Middle East of today.

Time for a regime change?

Unfortunately, the message is still not sinking in that Iran is not Cuba. The Bay of Pigs is not the Straits of Hormuz. There, on an island called Abu Musa, the Iranians have already deployed sophisticated anti-ship missiles and artillery shells, trained on a tiny gateway through which half of our global oil flows. In other words, the Iranians can turn this vital oil route into a fiery inferno and precipitate global economic pandemonium, should the US embark on a unilateral action.

The Iranians can achieve this in many ways, even if its nuke facilities are blasted to smithereens. Think of a few submerged oil tankers blocking oil traffic to the rest of the world? There will be no room for environmental cries here; they will drowned out by the shrills of the global economy, choked right at the straits.

Tehran may call this a "military blunder," which, incidentally is the title of a History Channel program on the controversial shooting down of an Iran Air Airbus A300 on July 3, 1988, by the USS Vincennes, exactly at the same spot. Close to 300 people died. If controversy still dogs that incident today, another mission creep in the middle east would flame justifications for any sort of reprisal.

Iran's military retaliation would only need to disrupt oil supply, not winning battles per se. It has other arsenals at its disposal to achieve this target. In this game of brinkmanship, tit for tat verbal provocations between Washington (and Tel Aviv) and Tehran is enough to rattle stock market nerves, and major industries are undoubtedly lobbying the White House right now to go easy with the rhetoric. Only in this era of Peak Oil can verbal threats be used so effectively as a weapon.

Tehran will have unusual allies in this case - the global economy, major oil companies, financial institutions, Russia, China, etc. In fact, the list stretches to anyone who stands to lose a job or faces starvation after it gets "Mission Accomplished." And there are tens of millions who might in an oil gutted world, all within two or three months from the start of hostilities. What happens after that could turn out to be a very bad nightmare.

Any sort of liberating, counter-terrorism or manufactured mission will be both Pyrrhic and pyric, any way you look at it. China, which, sources a significant amount of oil from Iran might be tempted to flex its own muscles, the same way Imperial Japan raced to the Dutch East Indies for oil when Pearl Harbor was still smoking in ruins. Beijing doesn't have much of a strategic petroleum reserve but it does have ample nuclear deterrent. In fact, Beijing will not need a deep incursion southwards. Seizing Taiwan would do. Taipeh has long-term oil contracts with certain Southeast Asian nations, where they are mainly traded at a pittance compared to current prices. Beijing will, of course, dispatch its navy to secure those supplies.

The Russians, on the other hand, may resort to an en passant on its chessboard of energy geopolitics and catch many by surprise. If the conditions are right, there is a possibility here of Washington losing Japan and South Korea - due to is proximity to the Siberian fields - to Moscow's orbit.

The ides of March are ominous. Military options will be grossly counterproductive.

Geopolitically, surgical strikes by US bombers or warships are a ready-made gooey mess for the Persian Gulf, as they may have to operate out of Arab soil or waters. The Iranians need only retaliate against two or three major oil installations, besides sinking enough tonnage to make the Straits of Hormuz perilous to navigation. Letting loose a tiny armada of floating mines is another effective answer. Employing a dirty nuke may make life rather inhospitable for inhabitants and oil firms in this region.

As for "covert" strikes, any unusual activity on Iraqi soil will be noted and passed on to the Iranians before it is time for take-off. Battle-weary Iraqis know enough of warfare and logistics. Turkey is a good lunching pad, if it relishes a Shabab-3 or two in return, and so would Israel. The Central Asian nations are unlikely to be a party to this charade, especially after the Russians have reasserted a level of leverage there.

But the Persian menu also includes the proposed Iranian Oil Bourse, which, is slated to begin operations in March. Oil can be purchased and sold here in euros, just like in a stock exchange. It is a monopoly up till now enjoyed by New York's NYMEX and London's International Petroleum Exchange (IPE), both effectively owned and operated by the same cartel, and both denominated in dollars.

Put it simply, the privilege of printing greenbacks so that other nations can buy its oil in dollars is in jeopardy. Financially, printing more dollars so that it can be exchanged for euros wouldn't work either. Oil has been pegged to the dollar for decades. Oil gives value to the dollar; without it the dollar doesn't have the same fundamental strengths as the Swiss Franc. Some claim Saddam Hussein became unpardonable and beyond redemption when he insisted on euros for Iraqi oil sales. He got the currency wrong from October 2000 and a handsome profit till his Weapon for Messing up the Dollar - the more realistic WMD - landed him Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Iranians so far have not indicated whether they have come up with an oil marker - a euro-denominated oil pricing standard - like the dollar denominated West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI), Norway Brent crude, and the UAE Dubai crude. That can wait till the Iranian New Year on March 20, where oil markers, missiles, nukes and euros can be unveiled amidst fireworks. The New Year is commonly referred to as Norouz, the festival of spring. It is the day of the vernal equinox.

That soothsayer, if he were still around, may chuck equinoxes and ides in favor of more modern terms like a Spring Offensive.

Other Ides

Guess where Bush is heading to in March? To India. Forget about an overstretched US Army; this problem cannot be tackled militarily unless our world population is comfortable with a looming $100-$300 per barrel.

Maybe, just maybe, there is a realistic long-term foreign policy option on the cards, in case Iran maintains its nuclear posture. Militarily, the game is effectively lost, and a visit to New Delhi may have profound significance if the State and Defense departments get their act right. India - the one-time democratic nemesis - is now being seen as the only long-term reliable ally between Tel Aviv and Tokyo. At least by more sensible foreign policy and defense analysts.

If Bush plays games there, the United States would find itself totally isolated. It would be quite retarded to court New Delhi when hostilities are commenced. The Indians had enough of Jihad jamborees and wouldn't want to be seen as Washington's comrade in arms when the first salvoes are fired in the Persian Gulf.

If Bush ever goes to India in March, there are plenty of soothsayers around who can point to a new celestial axis, linking Washington, Brussels, Tel Aviv, New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra. There are enough sympathetic nations in between. It's a viable pact in the long run and these are democracies who share a level of empathy with Washington. Again, the world has changed so much that there is only scope here for genuine partnerships, not Big Brother games.

The current hypocrisy of engaging highly repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia will have to be jettisoned and so do witless sanctions or threats of force against Venezuela and Cuba.

There is no "freedom" credibility in these double standards and that's why the United States continues to be seen as a rogue superpower. Molly-coddling a nation that allegedly produced 15 of the 19 Sept 11 hijackers and which continues to be a font of Al Qaeda funding while ostracizing Cuba and Venezuela reeks of tyranny instead of "freedom." The United States is not the only nation that has crudely pandered to power at the expense of freedom abroad, but it can realistically take a new path now. There is not much choice, when options are seen through the prism of peak oil and energy geopolitics. In the meantime, Washington will have to reign in both Israel and Hamas in search of a viable, long-term solution in the Occupied Territories.

There are nations where rapprochement will be rewarded with friendship and even democracy - where it is missing - down the lane. You can never get that out of Riyadh and the White House should take note that democracy is more practiced in Tehran than much of the Middle East. The two exceptions are Lebanon and Israel. Confronting Iran militarily would really look bad. It will also rally Persians of all political persuasions into a fiercely nationalist reprisal and that will not die down too easily.

Make no mistake about that.

A rationale US foreign policy still looks like a busted, smoldering pipe dream. Till March, however, there is yet a little of hope of lighting Havana cigars instead of a global bonfire.

But that would involve tightening the belt, strengthening the fundamentals of the dollar and engaging genuine democracies and non-hostile regimes in the long run. So far, that's been an anathema to successive US administrations but if a new start is imperative, it is now.

If the neocons prevail in casting their war spell on Bush, the ides of March will surely herald a global scourge.

Mathew Maavak is currently a visiting fellow at Jakarta's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Jakarta, Feb 7, 2006

Copyright @ Mathew Maavak 2006

Most of Mathew Maavak commentaries can be read here or visit the Panoptic World homepage.

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