- The Challenge in the Persian Gulf with Iran Looms Large
- Should We Be Worried About Iran?
- Dubai Debt Fiasco Could Weigh on U.S. Banks
Last night, Marina and I had the distinct pleasure of dining with Khaled Duwaisan, Kuwait's Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the longest-serving foreign emissary in London.
His Excellency is a very gracious man, well respected by his peers, and, after more than two decades in London, certainly somebody who has seen much come and go in his time.
Our discussions centered on the situation presented by Iran in the Persian Gulf and the current crisis there.
Also attending the dinner and long discussion were the ambassadors from every other Gulf Coordination Council nation in the region and the legal representative of the Iranians (who currently have no official diplomatic connection with the United Kingdom).
Now, as with such sessions, all of the conversations were held under Chatham House rules. That means, while general themes can be discussed, all participants agree not to connect named people with specific positions in commenting on the meeting afterwards.
This was one of the more memorable sessions I have ever had. It was striking how articulately and passionately the delegates addressed the subject.
The overwhelming response to my comments could be summarized in two ways: the rejection of a nuclear-armed Iran and a strong opinion that the region must settle its affairs on its own.
The first conclusion is certainly shared by the West, but the second may well be difficult to achieve in practice. The prospect of Iran with nuclear capability is hardly a matter Washington, or London, or Brussels will allow the region to decide on its own.
The gathering certainly understood that. These are, after all, seasoned diplomats well-schooled in the protocols and realities of international politics. But they are also experienced in the affairs of a region with the longest and most intricate negotiating traditions on the face of the earth.
They also have a perspective honed from several thousand years of history, tradition, and conflict. There was present a quality I rarely experience in my international meetings -- patience.
However, one other matter quickly surfaced that was unanimously viewed as a major element in the ongoing conflict. The assembled representatives spoke about it candidly and directly.
Such a steep spike in crude oil prices would plunge the United States and Europe back into recession, said Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors.
Iran just concluded a 10-day military exercise intended to prove to the West that it can choke off the flow of Persian Gulf oil whenever it wants.
The world's fourth-biggest oil producer is unhappy with fresh U.S. financial sanctions that will make it harder to sell its oil, which accounts for half of the government's revenue.
"Tehran is making a renewed political point here. The message is - we can close this anytime we want to," said Moors, who has studied Iran for more than a decade. "The oil markets are essentially ignoring the likelihood at the moment, but any increase in tensions will increase risk assessment and thereby pricing."
One reason the markets haven't reacted much to Iran's latest rhetoric is that although it has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz many times over the past 20 years, it has never followed through on the threat.
But a fresh wave of Western sanctions could hurt Iran's economy enough to make Tehran much less cautious.
The latest sanctions, signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday, will make it far more difficult for refiners to buy crude oil from Iran. And looming on the horizon is further action by the European Union (EU), which next month will consider an embargo of Iranian oil.
"The present United Nations, U.S. and EU sanctions have already had a significant toll," said Moors. "They have effectively prevented Iranian access to main international banking networks. Iran now has to use inefficient exchange mechanisms."
Because international oil trade is conducted in U.S. dollars, Moors said, Iran must have a convenient way to convert U.S. dollars into its home currency or other currencies it needs, such as euros.
Pushed to the BrinkThe impact of the sanctions combined with internal political instability has driven Iran to turn up the volume on its rhetoric.
"Tehran has limited options remaining," Moors said, noting Iran has historically used verbal attacks on the West to distract its population from the country's problems. "The Iranian economy is seriously weakening, the political division among the ayatollahs is increasing, and unrest is rising."
Analysts worry an Iranian government that feels cornered would be more prone to dangerous risk-taking in its dealings with the West. So while totally shutting down the Strait of Hormuz isn't likely, Iran could still escalate a confrontation beyond mere talk.
A potential default by Dubai on debt payments could have a ripple effect on U.S. banks and the still-gloomy commercial real estate industry, some analysts say.
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Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) has $1.9 billion invested in the nation's state-owned investment vehicle Dubai World, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) said in a research note.
While not directly affecting Citi or other major U.S. banks, the indirect effects could be more crippling on a broader scale, Rochdale Securities analyst Dick Bove told CNNMoney.
"There could be huge indirect exposure," Bove said. "One has to assume that U.S. banks will be hurt."