CERA: Tensions over Iranian nuclear ambitions

While the United States is gauging the impact of potential European oil sanctions on Iran, the Iranian military remains capable of causing major problems in the Persian Gulf region, panelists said Wednesday during the IHS CERA Week energy conference in Houston.

The government has not yet determined how the world oil supply will be affected, although International Energy Agency figures indicate that enough production exists globally to meet market needs, said Ambassador Carlos Pascual, special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy.

“This is one of the issues that we’re trying to make sure is the case and in the end it will depend on the producers,” Pascual said.

Panelists disagreed on the likelihood that Iran would respond to possible sanctions with military force, although one speaker spent more than 30 minutes detailing the country’s military capabilities and its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“This is an ongoing build up,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It isn’t something that has somehow frozen in place. Iran continues to generate forces, we continue to change our posture in the gulf. So do the gulf states, so does Britain, so does France. We’re talking an arms race, which is not only underway, but it has about 8 more years of known deliveries.”

He added that Iran was close to being able to assemble a nuclear weapon.

“The conservative estimate is two to three years before some kind of device and frankly nobody can tell you when they’re going to get a device they can actually put on a missile,” Cordesman said. “We don’t have enough unclassified information to make those kinds of judgments.”

Bijan Khajehpour, managing partner of Atieh International GmbH, said that there is little public will in Iran for a confrontation with the west.

“There is awareness that a military confrontation will actually push Iran back decades and one of the key stakeholders want that,” Khajehpour said.

In addition, a changing western approach to Iran’s nuclear program, shifting the “red line” from concern over any uranium enrichment, to concern over development of a nuclear weapon, he said.

“Iran can actually live with the new red line from the U.S. and Europe,” Khahjehpour said.

He was optimistic that renewed talks over Iran’s nuclear program, which could be held in April, would reduce tensions.