Are the West and Iran Headed to War?

Italy summoned Iran’s envoy to Rome’s foreign ministry on Thursday to express its “firm condemnation” of the storming of the British embassy in Tehran – leading some to suggest Iran and the West are on a collision course.

Straits of Hormuz
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Straits of Hormuz

Rome announced it had also demanded security guarantees for diplomats during the meeting with Tehran’s envoy, Mehdi Akouchekian. Italy, diplomats told him, may take further action.

Iranian protesters on Tuesday stormed and ransacked the British embassy and British diplomatic compounds after an apparently state-approved rally denounced Britain’s support of U.S. sanctions over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

Iran subsequently denied it was behind the escalation saying a handful of protesters got out of hand, but Western diplomats have dismissed Tehran’s claims saying it had intentionally sought a “dramatic piece of political theater.”

Italy has long had strong economic ties with Iran, but reduced trade substantially in recent years. Germany, France and the Netherlands recalled their ambassadors in solidarity with Britain.

EU officials are also said to be considering an oil embargo on Iran, preventing the shipping of Iranian oil to the West. The idea has been slowly gaining support since the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.

Now, the occupation and sacking of the British embassy has pushed the idea to the forefront of the EU’s agenda.

Analysts say the move could be the first step towards open military confrontation between Tehran and the West. Were Tehran to view strong sanctions on its critical oil exports as an “act of war,” which is how some Iranian officials are already defining such a move, it could lead to a dramatic escalation.

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Should that happen Tehran might seek to drive up oil prices in retaliation by moving to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world’s oil supplies flows into the global market. Such an eventuality, analysts say, is something Iranian military planners have long-been preparing for.

If so, the West and its Gulf Arab allies will find themselves forced to open the Straits of Hormuz up by force – which could spread into a broader war in the Gulf region.

The officials behind Tuesday’s deniable aggression in Tehran may have miscalculated the furor the embassy sacking would have in Western capitals. But intended or not, they have set in motion a high-stakes game of diplomatic chicken that could end in war.

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