High Tensions Continue in Persian Gulf

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Iran continues to stage military maneuvers amid its threats to close the vital oil shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. And Israel continues to mull a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, while politicians are urging Washington to show Tehran that it faces a credible military threat.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The apparent collapse of U.N. diplomacy regarding Syria has many in the Persian Gulf - Arabs as well as Iranians - on edge. That's because Syria is one of Iran's closest allies. The fear among many Gulf Arabs is that if Syria's government falls, Iran might respond with force. From Dubai, NPR's Peter Kenyon explains why all eyes in the Gulf are on Syria.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: International anger at Russia and China's veto of the Syrian resolution at the U.N. Security Council was felt among Sunni Arab Gulf states too. But here, the primary concern is focused on Syria's role as ally to Shiite-led Iran. Iran uses Syria to project force into the region. It's the main route for arming the Tehran-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, for instance.

Gulf Arab leaders worry that if Iran feels it's losing Syria, it may resort to drastic steps. Arab fears were hardly allayed by the Ayatollah Khamenei's sermon on Friday, in which Iran's supreme leader vowed more support for Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region. Khamenei's audience cheered as he said thanks to Iran, militants in Gaza these days are firing rockets instead of throwing rocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI: (Through translator) The Islamic revolution believes that helping the mujahedeen, the Sunnah in Hamas and the Islamic jihad, and the Shia mujahedeen in Hezbollah and in the Amal movement, we believe that all this is a religious duty.

KENYON: Efforts to force Iran to give up enriching uranium, which can be used for either nuclear energy or weapons, have largely been a matter of sanctions and covert operations so far. But Gulf Arab states worry that escalation into a military conflict will put them, as Iran's neighbors, at the greatest risk. Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, says when you look at what might trigger an escalation, cutting off Iran's oil revenue is one possibility, but so is the fall of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. If Iran sees its pathway to influencing the region about to disappear, he says, that could push hardliners in Tehran over the edge.

RIAD KAHWAJI: It will be when the regime in Syria finally collapses, and revenues from oil drop more than 30, 40 percent, then yes, my belief, the regime will then be in a very desperate situation that could prompt it to take radical actions.

KENYON: Those could include an attempt to close the oil shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz or even strikes against Western or Arab military facilities that dot the Western Gulf from Kuwait to the UAE. Kahwaji says if Tehran concludes that it's losing Damascus and facing slow economic strangulation, it might decide to threaten everyone else's economy by disrupting world energy markets.

KAHWAJI: It's capable of launching a surprise attack on bases of the U.S. and its allies on the western bank of the Gulf. It is a huge gamble, but if they calculate that they are losing anyway and they have no other options, it's something that they will likely take.

KENYON: Many Western analysts say, whatever Iran's intentions, it doesn't have the capacity to sustain a military conflict with Western forces. A spike in energy prices, however, could derail recoveries in a number of fragile Western economies. Analyst Mustafa Alani with the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center says, at the moment, Syria is looming large in the minds of Iranian hardliners.

DR. MUSTAFA ALANI: They feel definitely that the Saudis, the Qataris and other countries are sponsoring the downfall of the regime in Syria. And this is, again, justified all the threat about punishing Gulf states. It's not only related to their support of the sanctions. It is the strategic question of the future of Syria.

KENYON: As Washington calls for an international coalition to increase pressure on the Syrian regime, U.S. allies in the Gulf will be watching anxiously and hoping that mounting pressure doesn't necessarily mean a wider explosion is coming. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Dubai.

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