The growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program in 2011 didn’t let up as the year drew to a close. Iranian officials threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Western governments adopt more sanctions aimed at hindering its nuclear program, prompting U.S. government representatives to state that they won’t allow this to happen.
On December 27, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Iran’s first vice president, warned that, “If they [Western Powers] impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.” The following day, Iranian naval commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari stated that, “Iran has total control over the strategic waterway…Closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy for Iranian naval forces.”
About one-fifth of the world’s oil production, or some two-fifths of the world’s tanker-borne oil, traverse the Strait, amounting to about 15 million barrels per day. Western officials have therefore kept a wary eye on Iranian warships as well as various units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that have been engaging in maritime exercises in the Persian Gulf in a 2,000 square-kilometer zone in international waters between the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. These exercises, code named Velayat 90, began on December 24 and are scheduled to last about 10 days. Iran regularly holds such exercises, but the timing of these drills has attracted more international attention than usual.
Indeed, tensions were heightened still further when Iran this weekend tested medium-range missiles capable of hitting Bahrain and other Gulf states with U.S. military bases, including a Qader (Capable) shore-to-sea and a Nour (Light) surface-to-surface missile. Iran is located some 140 miles at its nearest point from Bahrain, and Sayyari was quick to suggest that the missile firings and other capabilities displayed during the exercise demonstrated that the Iranian military had the ability to close the Strait if so ordered.
So, are Iranian officials serious? For now at least they probably wouldn’t carry out such a threat, and are more likely trying simply to deter additional sanctions by highlighting the specter of a military confrontation, which would raise insurance costs to shippers even if their vessels weren’t physically attacked. The threats are a reminder to the world that Tehran might not react passively to additional sanctions, and the Iranians might well hope that Russia and China will press the EU and Japan to avoid adopting new sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. Making threats is also useful to Tehran as it can raise world oil prices and therefore generate some extra Iranian export revenue.
And there are domestic considerations – Iranian leaders might be hoping to show their people how tough they are in defending Iranian interests from foreign challenges. Certainly, making threats is less costly than taking concrete action such as attacking foreign targets in other Gulf States or Israel.
Still, the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Washington is a reminder that when it comes to Iran, nothing is certain. Some Iranians appear to be simply crazy, rather than “crazy like a fox.” There’s also the risk of inadvertent conflict through misperception or accident due to the increased military activities by U.S. and Iranian forces in close proximity in the Persian Gulf. After all, the Strait is about 34 miles wide at the narrowest point, but the navigable part is only some 20 miles wide.
All this comes at a time when tensions between Iran and the West had already escalated after the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report apparently detailing reported Iranian bomb-making activities. More recently, Iran has detained and tried Americans as spies and has refused to return a U.S. surveillance drone. U.S. officials and experts also worry that Iran will try to move into the vacuum created by the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.