The past two weeks have seen a dramatic escalation in Iran’s war of words with the West.
Last Wednesday, Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi told Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, that new economic pressure currently being contemplated by the West would come at a steep cost. According to Rahimi, “not a drop of oil” will pass through the Strait of Hormuz — a key strategic waterway that serves as a conduit for as much as a third of the world’s oil — if additional sanctions are levied against the Islamic Republic for its nuclear program. Iran’s top naval commander, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, has been even more explicit, warning publicly that his country stands ready to block the strait if necessary.
Iran has backed up these words with concrete action. On Dec. 24, it launched a very public 10-day naval war game in the strait. Dubbed “Velayat 90,” the exercise entailed a massive show of force intended to convey one clear message: that the Iranian regime is willing to shut down the Strait of Hormuz in the event of additional pressure from the West, or outright conflict with it.
Iran certainly has the ability to do so. As long ago as 2004, the U.S. intelligence community was estimating publicly that the Iranian regime could shut down the strait for brief periods of time, even with a Western military presence in the region. Additional investments in naval capabilities in the years since have only expanded Iran’s ability to choke off the flow of Mideast oil.
Doing so would have disastrous consequences, not least for Iran itself. The Islamic Republic currently ranks as the second largest producer in OPEC, exporting an estimated 2.4 million barrels of crude daily (mostly through the strait). In turn, oil and natural gas sales account for some 80 percent of the country’s hard-currency export earnings. A closure of the strait would be both self-defeating and ruinous for Iran’s energy economy.
But even as a bluff, Iran’s threats have a real impact. They have spooked jittery global markets and created a powerful disincentive for European nations to apply and enforce further economic pressure against Tehran. And while other Middle Eastern energy suppliers (most prominently Saudi Arabia) have pledged to offset any shortages that might result from Iran’s actions, those countries are also highly reliant on the strait to bring their crude to market — and would be neutered by its closure.
The West, in other words, needs to craft a strategic response to Iran’s brinksmanship. To do so, the United States and its coalition partners must convey two distinct messages to Tehran.
The first is that any attempt to close (or otherwise manipulate) the strait will be viewed by the international community as a casus belli. Iran’s leaders need to understand that a closure or narrowing of the strait, however temporary, would lead to an assumption of control of the waterway by U.S. and allied military forces. That, in effect, would make the very outcome that Iran is seeking to avoid — an embargo of its oil exports — a de facto reality, and put America and its international partners in an even more advantageous position to throttle the Islamic Republic economically.
The second is that the strait is not an exclusive Iranian purview. Tehran has long used its strategic geography to bully and coerce regional states dependent on the smooth flow of energy commerce. But this dynamic can be made to work against Iran as well. If Gulf states, working in concert with Washington, erect an independent security mechanism to police and monitor the strait, Tehran will find it much more difficult to use the waterway to its advantage.
Indeed, regional policy makers appear to be thinking much the same thing. The recent Gulf Cooperation Council summit meeting in Riyadh concluded with a communiqué from member states approving the creation of formal “union” — to include greater security cooperation and mutual defense against external threats (such as Iran). Helping Gulf nations translate that sentiment into a real architecture that constrains how the Iranian regime operates and exploits the strait should be a top priority for the United States.
Through their latest threats, Iran’s leaders hope to deter the international community from further expanding the economic pressure being levied in response to their persistent nuclear effort. That bellicose rhetoric is perhaps the clearest sign to date that sanctions are having a real effect on the Iranian regime — and that its leadership fears more of the same. Washington and its allies need to press their advantage by continuing to ratchet up economic penalties against Tehran. As they do, however, they also will need to craft a strategy for constraining Iran in the strait.
By Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.