Iran’s Strategy in the Strait of Hormuz
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Iran’s Strategy in the Strait of Hormuz


As a consequence of the failure of the latest negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the European Union ban on the importation of Iranian oil took effect on July 1, 2012, and closure of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran became an issue again. This has provoked the following question: What actually is Iran’s strategy in the Strait of Hormuz?

The West has two perspectives on Iran closing the Strait. The first, based on a defensive standpoint, perceives Iran’s threat to be nothing more than a bluff, merely made to assert its power. Iran may be able to close the Strait temporarily, but lacks the superior military power to continue the closure.

From this perspective, Iran would not close the Strait of Hormuz for the following three reasons: first, Iran’s economy is dependent on the revenues from oil exported through the Strait. Second, Iran’s action could provoke a harsh military reaction from the United States and its allies, who then would have the necessary pretext to seize control of the Strait and possibly declare it to be an international passage. Third, Iran would face the possible negative reaction of other countries that it currently has friendly relations with (Russia, China, Iraq, Turkey, and India) and whose geopolitical, economic, and energy security interests would be adversely affected. For instance, Iraq has recently announced that some 1.7 million barrels of its oil transits the Strait and maintains that Iran should not close the passage.

The second perspective, based on an offensive standpoint,  believes that once Iran perceives that its economic security and other interests are in jeopardy, it would react by closing the Strait. Iran would do this for three reasons: first, as an attempt to increase the price of oil, thereby preempting any all-out prospective military attack by the West. Second, the ideological nature of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responds to crises with forceful and harsh military action. Third, the securitization of the region would increase the economic and political vulnerability of the Persian Gulf’s Arab countries because they are considered weak points in the West’s regional bulwark.

Iran’s strategy is actually mid-way between these two perspectives; while Iran’s economic interests dictate that it not close the Strait of Hormuz, it is likely that if Iran’s economic security is endangered, it will thus react because Iran’s energy exports are directly related to the country’s national security and the government’s legitimacy.

Iran’s reaction would be more focused on  “defensive deterrence”—taking a “measured” reaction when confronting those states which have acted against Iran’s interests with sanctions. Iran had previously conducted this strategy during the Tanker War in the 1980s. In terms of conducting an asymmetric war, Iran is in a much more powerful position for conducting such operations today.

Iran’s defensive deterrence strategy has three aspects: first, the increase of “relative security” by preserving its economic security and interests. From Iran’s perspective, regional security is “interdependent” meaning that insecurity for Iran is equivalent to insecurity for the other state in the region.  For instance, if the situation were to reach a point that Iran could not export any of its oil, it is likely that Iran would not let the other Arab countries of the region, which have sided with the West on the issue of sanctions, to export their oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Second, acting as a rational state from a position of power and conducting a policy based on regional geopolitical realities, Iran would avoid giving any pretext to the adversarial states that are interested in showing that Iran is not a responsible country that could act against global free trade and international energy security.  Third, Iran, which benefits from its advantageous geographical status at the Strait of Hormuz, tries to preserve the regional security of the Persian Gulf. This has been a constant in Iran’s defense strategy since the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Defensive deterrence aims not to close the Strait of Hormuz, but to take a measured action toward those ships which do business with adversarial countries transiting the Strait. As recently described by a senior IRGC official, it is a “smart control.” In other words, this strategy deals more with the soft and political—not the hard and military—aspect of security to justify the legitimacy of the “interdependent security” in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s stepped up military maneuvers and missile tests could be perceived to have taken place in this context.

Binding the interests of the international community as well as those of regional Arab regimes to the security of the Strait of Hormuz could be a pressure point on the United States and its Western allies and thus a deterrence opportunity for Iran. For instance, Iran’s inspection of transiting ships would increase oil side-costs such as insurance risk. Meanwhile, spreading political-security instability in the region, especially with the advent of the Arab Spring, would itself challenge the pillars of the Arab regimes’ legitimacy.

Preserving the security in the Strait of Hormuz is a priority of Iran’s defensive deterrence strategy in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s policy there will certainly be a measured and rational one, based on taking full responsibility and considering the region’s geopolitical realities. As Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Hassan Firouzabadi  has emphasized, the Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important transit points for energy shipments in the world, and Iran would not close it unless the country’s interests are imperiled. This statement shows that Iran perceives the issue of the Strait within the context of global dynamics. Based on this strategy and under the hardest economic conditions, Iran would not close the Strait of Hormuz.

Finally, Iran should only use the deterrence factor of closing the strategic Strait of Hormuz, if it is attacked by the United States and its allies. Such an attack is against the United Nations’ Charter, and Iran’s reaction to it should be perceived as a “legitimate defense.”

Kayhan Barzegar is Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, Tehran. The following piece was originally published at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government “Power and Policy” blog

December 18, 2012 at 06:10

Blokes here keeps on comparing situation in Afghanistan to Iran !!!! Dude get a life

Asif Ghafoor
December 18, 2012 at 05:26

Vinay Prasad, Pakistan is not a failed country, your wishful dream shall never see realit

May trong rau sach
December 18, 2012 at 01:18

I’m now not sure the place you are getting your info, however great topic. I needs to spend some time studying much more or working out more. Thank you for magnificent info I used to be in search of this info for my mission.

David Nicholas
October 28, 2012 at 09:54

You have to consider why the US only dreams about Iran and has not spent all kinds of time and money since 1979 to undermine other than backing Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which in the end was a stand-off and inconclusive. That the US has 2-3 aircraft carrier battle groups in the region at any one time and has not chosen to police and protect shipping passing through the straits, says something about the assessment  US forward thinkers have about provoking Iran into acting rashly.
You refer correctly about Iran's Revolutionary Guard and what they lengths they would go to in taking the fight to the US and along with it's allies, predominately Hizbullah. What you have not mentioned, and this may have been since this article, is that in recent poll in the last ten days is that 55% of Iranians approve of it' government's nuclear policy.  Given that the population figures for Iran has a large majority of its people under 30 years of age would tell me that  an attack on Iran nuclear facilities or for any other reason would spark a fanaticism that would embroil a war of attrition for years to come.
This would be a guerilla war and without any decisive peace imposed by foreign victors if any, history decides in favor of those who are defending their territory. Wars of attrition rarely favor the invaders and/or occupiers.
That said, should Mitt Romney win the Presidency, and foolishly follow the advice of his Neo-Con advisors who gave us the Iraq war, starts hostilities in concert with Israel, blocking the Straits would be a major priority for Iran.
Thinking like an Iranian, I would do it if just to make the infidel suffer and bring those who cause me pain, pain and suffering in response. Iran at that point has nothing to lose. And while I note that the Saudi's and various Emirates are planning, or have begun to build, a pipeline to get around any possible blockage of the Straits, the oil would not flow fast enough initially to cover the shortfall toWestern Europe and the US.
I calculate that three-four supertankers sunk in the straits deepest channels is a knock-out punch and the visuals of such a spectacle on satellite news channels, sparks a panic across financial markets which has repercussions far beyond my calculations. As good as a well armed defense of the Straits maybe had, through naval patrols and satellite/drone surveillance, it only takes a small number of well organized speed boats to create the havoc. It’s the adage: where there’s a will there’s a way.
That you are contemplating, the strategic consequences tells me you are concerned about such an outcome. You have every right to be.

October 28, 2012 at 09:32

Comming up next;  our fast food french fryies will say "made in China".

July 26, 2012 at 15:35

I found the analysis very articulate and direct to the point. The American forces are leaving the region. In such circumstances any regional instability would endanger the American interests. Also, we should not underestimate the potential of change in the region in the light of the Arab Spring i.e. in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. This will have tremendous effects on the energy security as well. 

July 26, 2012 at 02:31

The oil sanctions go back to 2009 and the need for a full naval embargo, the US has been creative in the application of the embargo, so while it is not a naval embargo enforced by the navy, they have used tools to stop Iran ships from docking in foreign ports, stop oil sales. The application of sanctions on Iran is to force them to close the Straits of Horumz themselves thus placing a full naval embargo on Iran. If they are forced to do this themselves as a response a military confrontation is less likely. There is no urgent need to force the reopening of the Straits of Hormuz. Thus we have a full Cuban style naval blocked on Iran. It like in school holding some ones arm and hit them in the head with it, stop hitting yourself in the head.

July 26, 2012 at 01:16

Iran has a long history and Iranians are very intelligent and cultured , and with a great value system and are ready to be freed of the Mullahs and join the world's main stream. Insecurity has driven Iranian leader's policy. US and its allies very well know that present Iranian leadership is their best partner in the middle east. Israel and Iran deserve to have a nuclear bomb, if they wish so , and have a new security doctrine covering central and middle east Asia.
No Iranian wish to continue with the present system.

July 26, 2012 at 01:10

Who said about invading Iran? It's about destroying Iran's ability to wage any kind of military threat to world oil supply and settle current standoff on nuclear issues.Yes, I agree with you on allied forces difficulty on fighting faceless combatants in Afghanistan and anywhere else, but not in Iran where there are regular military forces i.e navy,air including Republican Guard and etc.,where allied forces can identify and will destroy at will.I'm just hoping those events wont ever happen, but if it does,I don't want to see any more nation building under the guise of democracy.Let the people of Iran decide what kind of government they want and provide help if they want, after all Iran is rich and surely can afford their own nation building.

July 26, 2012 at 00:45

An attack against Iran is COMPLETE NONSENSE / FARCE / BIGGEST BLUFF IN WORLD CONTEMPORARY HISTORY. A war is never going to happen, howmuchever the world 'powers', media, bogeymen and "experts" may want us to believe.
First of all, the US or Israel would have attacked Iran on the night of 19th of June 2012, when the Moscow talks just concluded and was declared a complete failure. The United States clearly knew a) diplomacy had failed b) neither is Iran is ever going to beg US to roll back sanctions. c) Iran getting more time for bomb development if not attacked.
Yet nobody has attacked Iran. Why, even today, Iran can be attacked, they don't have the "bombs", their military is vastly inferior, outdated etc. Even today the Iran oil can be taken in control and feed the american customer, gas at 1 $ or less (or FOR FREE) for the rest of America's future. Then why the hell US does not attack Iran? Here is why: a)Hormuz is as close to Iran as the Potomac is to DC or the Thames to London. They have enormous control on Hormuz. The enemies of Iran assume they can control, but this is a foreign country, not their land. Forget about Hormuz. For the past 11 years the americans have tried to control the stone age Afghanistan, by land and air. What result? And they are quitting in 2014. And talk about sea and controlling Hormuz? This is a no brainer. How long can you prevent cheap speed boats from attacking tankers? Even if you decimate Iran the speed boats will still be there. They just have to bomb 2 oil tankers. The insurance companies will close down Hormuz business, and the americans will pay 10$ for gas. Howzz that? In fact the american government will be the second one that will be overthrown, Israel being the first. Look at CNN on TV today 21st July 2012: Ali Velshi says the US economy is about to fall off a cliff. Switch on your TV right now. b) Iran might actually have "the bombs" from Pakistan. Just earlier this year when Israel threatened to attack Iran, Pak was the only country to have gone on record saying they prevent west from attacking Iran. Iran just has to ask the failed country and hand out some money to do the job. In fact Iraq was attacked by western forces because they didnt have WMDs. Iran has them. c) Even when there was no war on Iran, Iranian terrorists targeted diplomats in New Delhi, Tbilisi, Bangkok. Expect Iran to become a real terrorist country to destroy the west slowly by their means. Life will not be easy forever. d) An adventure on Iran without understanding all consequences will be a catastrophe on the US economy. Widespread joblessness due to crippling taxation and crippling interest rates will cause an "american spring" for sure. Russia and China will take control. Russia, monopoly natural gas exporter to Europe will hike by 5 times. China will control South China Sea. Egypt will close the Suez Canal. The dollar will loose value and will no more be used as a soverign currency for oil and international trade, a nightmare the US wanted to prevent in the first place.
This is what pretty much world history is all about! Rise and fall of nations!
WAR WAS NEVER ON THE TABLE AT ALL. The US bases in the ME are infructuous. Iran, a 5000 year NATION has seen over its history, too many Johnnies of the world rise up and fall down by the wayside. By comparison, uncle sam is still only a 236 year old experiment.
It makes sense to make friends with Iran, without the selfish oil grabbing intent (credible and verifiable) and colonial mindset like the "P5+1". Sanctions need to be rolled back and compensation to be paid to Iran WITH INTEREST, for causing loss to its economy. The mullah apartheid mindset has to evaporate. The world will be much safer and life more affordable.

Frank Wall
July 25, 2012 at 18:01

I really would not call it a stupid analysis. It seems fair and balanced. But yes, the point is that it would be suicidal for Iran to close the strait. The Allies would be compelled to act and the Iranian military with its huge amount of 1970s era US hardware would not last very long.

July 25, 2012 at 14:38

There are TWO things you said:
(a)  "Allied forces will make sure that all its navy.missile sites.air forces,radars and other valued targets will be taken out of actions for the first few days,"
(b) "persistent monitoring of suspected sites".
In case you are aware of how the NATO worked in Afghanistan and (coalition) in Iraq, USA+allies are great in a "set-piece board war". Nobody can come close. In short (a) will succeed beyond anyone's wish.
It is in (b) the "monitoring" is where the US falls very short. It just cannot handle guerilla warfare. In Afghanistan,  if reports are to be believed, it is surrendering to the Haqqani network and the Taliban for an exit strategy. 
But then, there will not be a close of the straits. For two reasons, (a) it is in Iran's interest to keep the tension running; (b) it can better squeeze the economy by creating a deflation in oil prices. Let its competitors too suffer from cheap oil.

Mark Thomason
July 25, 2012 at 08:05

Iran has many other options to affect the oil exports of its neighbors and the oil security of those attacking it.  The huge Saudi oil fields and the Bahrain gas nexus are lived on by Shiite populations subject to intense, violent repression.  Syria and Yemen are models of what an outside power can do to such a situation.  The loading platforms and pipelines are far more vulnerable than the Straits as a whole.  
It seems as if those who oppose Iran reassure themselves and all of us with a good deal of wishful thinking.

July 25, 2012 at 03:52

What a stupid analysis posted ever here in THE DIPLOMAT, if the US and its allies attack that will be the end of Iran's armed forces. Allied forces will make sure that all its navy.missile sites.air forces,radars and other valued targets will be taken out of actions for the first few days, and coupled that with persistent monitoring of suspected sites it seems like suicidal to me.US forces,especially navy and air forces that is already deployed there is in total control of air and sea, not unless Iran changes that dynamics,the AYATOLLAHS might be paranoid and fanatical, but not stupid enough to follow your advised of measured response…

July 25, 2012 at 03:26

This talk of Iran "closing the Hormuz Strait" appears to be a less understood term. Iran will not close the Hormuz strait. It wants to collect toll on the ships crossing the strait. To that effect, Iran will create all sorts of mischief, should it be really affected by the sanctions. Iran clearly knows how the western countries got defeated in STONE AGE Afghanistan, and are today giving up and packing off in 2014. It was a war of attrition. Cause problems and pressure to the enemy all the time, making it prohibitively expensive to carry on. America had to negotiate with the Taliban. No other way. Iran will apply the same principle in Hormuz. So if Iran's interests are really affected due to sanctions, expect problems for the west. There will be no war. The negotiated settlement will be toll tax. Sanctions will remain in place even if Iran complies 100% with all the diktats of the west, because only the US Congress is authorised to revoke sanctions. The only way to bridge the financial gap is through collection of toll.

Ixbalank Torres
July 25, 2012 at 00:02

I agree, very good analysis

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