Earlier this week, reports surfaced of Iran’s naval buildup in the Strait of Hormuz in preparations for military drills. Several international sources have confirmed that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is expected to soon begin a major naval exercise in the area. The maneuvers could be used to demonstrate the Islamic Republic’s ability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial conduit for global oil supplies.
According to two U.S. officials directly familiar with the latest assessment of the Revolutionary Guard’s troop movements, the exercise in the Persian Gulf could begin as soon as the weekend of August 4th. Captain William Urban, chief spokesman for U.S. Central Command told news sources that the U.S. is “aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman.” Urban added that U.S. forces are “monitoring it closely, and we will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways.” As of now, U.S. military intelligence assesses the IRGC has assembled a fleet of more than 100 boats. Many if not most of these vessels are small, fast-moving skiffs, in tune with Iran’s unique naval strategy that prefers agility over raw power.
It’s expected Iranian air and ground assets including coastal defense missile batteries could be involved as well. Hundreds of Iranian troops are expected to participate and some regular Iranian forces outside of the Guard Corps could also be called up.
News of Iran’s implicit threat on the Strait is indeed a significant escalation in its bout with the West over the failing nuclear deal. Ever since President Trump pulled out of the deal in May, Iran has been scrambling for options on how to stay afloat once U.S. sanctions kick back in over the coming months. The Ayatollahs have put every strategy into play. They’ve met with European diplomats to pressure them into continuing to support the deal. They’ve issued threats to increase uranium production if the West fails to abide by its end of the Obama-era deal. Now it is resorting to outright military intimidation. Indeed, the Strait of Hormuz is a sore point that provides Iran with considerable leverage. Twenty percent of total world-wide petroleum exports flows through the Strait. Any disruption—or even news of likely disruption—could significantly influence global oil prices. If the Strait was rendered completely out of use, it could actually cause a major energy crisis in the region and be devastating to the economies of other oil exporters. Furthermore, the Strait is vulnerable. The whole thing is just 29 miles wide at its narrowest point. Plus, its not even a strait ride through. The Strait’s snake-like curvature makes it incredibly easy to block.
To appreciate the audacious move by Iran in threatening the Strait, it is worth highlighting an interesting historical fact about this unique waterway. Due to its sensitivity, it has often been out of bounds as a strategic target in regional conflict. Closing the Strait is the “nuclear option” of Middle East wars, that everyone understands would trigger a large international response. In fact, because a move on the Strait would almost certainly bring retaliation on the country responsible, Iran’s rival Iraq once tried to goad Tehran into blocking it. Back in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the so-called “Tanker War” phase started when Iraq attacked the oil terminal and oil tankers at Iran’s Kharg Island. Saddam Hussein’s aim in attacking Iranian shipping was at least in part to get the Iranians to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz to all maritime traffic. This, figured Saddam, would certainly bring about American intervention. As an aside, this type of scheming was a favorite of Saddam’s playbook. Years later in the Gulf War he would attempt the same tactic when he fired over forty Scud missiles at Israel with the hopes of luring the Jewish State into the conflict. But Iranian leadership was smart. They did not take the bait. Instead, Iran limited the retaliatory attacks to Iraqi shipping, and left the Strait open.
Now a generation later, Iran is taking the opposite approach. They are actively playing the Hormuz Strait card, or at least threatening to.
While this is very much a big move on the part of Iran, it should not be at all surprising. For nearly a month, the topic of the Strait has been lingering in the background. Iranian leadership has implied that they may take steps at their disposal to clamp down on global oil supplies in response to American sanctions.
But equally expected was the U.S. response to these threats. The administration promptly stated that the government would exercise whatever measures necessary to keep Hormuz open. And this is where the real question comes in: What is Iran’s end game?
Yes, Iran has the ability to effectively close the Strait, and it would hurt its foes. But does the Iranian leadership not anticipate a response? Remember this is not just America that would be triggered by this, but also all of Iran’s oil exporter neighbors who rely on the Strait, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar, most of whom are not exactly friends of the Tehran regime. Is Iran relying on the presidency and unwillingness of Trump to enter another regional conflict?
Beyond this, the Straits are an international waterway. Closing them would be a flagrant violation of international law. Is this the image Iran wants to create for itself while trying to save its precious nuclear deal? Doubling down on the “oil weapon” strategy will only bolster feelings in the U.S. and Europe that Iran is a pariah.
Perhaps the most likely lesson to be extracted from Iran’s recent threat on the Strait is that it is being driven to desperation. U.S. sanctions are now beginning to return, Iran is having trouble garnering support from Europe, and social unrest at home is already beginning to stir in response to the country’s deteriorating financial situation. If this is the case, the best thing for the U.S. would be to maintain the slow and steady course, allow the sanctions to take their effect, and avoid any drastic moves that could alter the current dynamic.