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Iran’s Imperfect Trap for Obama

The threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz could come back to haunt Iran’s leaders. Still, Obama will be wary of becoming the second president to come unstuck over Iran.

The publication of an analysis last week by Tehran-based ASR Iran made for interesting reading. Entitled “Iran’s blows against the White House; will Obama have the same fate as Carter?” the writer concluded that:

“What has happened in recent months, and will probably continue, brings up memories of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and its impact on the defeat of the Democrats and Jimmy Carter’s personal failure.  Perhaps finally, as a result of the blows received from the Iran front, Obama will become one of the few single term U.S. presidents – unless in the few remaining months he carries out serious reforms in bilateral relations and comes down from his ivory tower and returns to the negotiating table with Iran as an equal.”

The line about Iran’s recent “blows” against the United States is no doubt referring to the U.S. drone currently in Iranian hands, the capture of a supposed U.S. spy and Iran’s continuing ability to continue with its nuclear program, including claims that Tehran is transferring sensitive nuclear activities to fortified underground sites.

Although ASR Iran isn’t believed to be a mouthpiece of the regime, its observations are often an accurate reflection of the opinions of the Iranian leadership and its supporters, many of whom now believe that Iran has not only not “lost” to Barack Obama, but that the regime might actually be coming out on top.

Tuesday’s threat by Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz “if the West imposes sanctions on Iran's oil shipments” was not only a warning aimed at the West generally, but also bears the hallmarks of an Iranian political trap for Obama as he heads into an election year.

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It’s no secret that the U.S. economy is Obama’s Achilles’ heel. Iran knows that by closing the Strait of Hormuz, oil prices could rise significantly, doing further damage to an already faltering U.S. economy. With the U.S. presidential election less than a year away, this could be the kiss of death for Obama’s reelection chances. A sudden rise in oil prices could do to Obama’s reelection bid what Ayatollah Ruhollah  Khomeini’s 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy did to Carter’s reelection ambitions, namely wreck them.

And if at any point after sanctions were imposed Obama tried to limit the damage of  high energy prices by then waiving sanctions (something the new legislation allows him to) then he’d be stepping into another trap, one of looking “weak” on Iran. Any Republican opponent would revel in the opportunity to present Obama as both the man who wrecked the economy, and then the leader who “chickened out” against Iran’s rulers.

Obama therefore has no choice now but to push ahead – the U.S. Congress has ripped out its reverse gear. But in doing so, he may be damned if he moves forward, and damned if he doesn’t.

So, are Iran’s leaders right to congratulate themselves for upping the ante by issuing the challenge over Hormuz? Certainly, if Obama doesn’t want to see his already uncertain electoral chances sink in the Persian Gulf then he will need to tread carefully.

However, Iran’s leaders need to be careful, too. By blockading the Strait of Hormuz, Iran would in essence be declaring war against Persian Gulf states and members of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, many of whom use the strait to export oil and liquefied natural gas.

Not only would such a move place these countries squarely in the U.S. camp, but it could also backfire by making Iran look weak if it didn’t follow through. It’s no secret that Iran needs the strait to export its own oil, and it’s hard not to see Iran backing down under pressure of its neighbors to lift a blockade to help its own economy. In doing so, it would look weak in its neighbors’ eyes.

Blocking the strait would also likely push these same neighbors to consider a pipeline into the Arabian Sea, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, a move that in the long run would undermine the strait’s strategic value to Iran.

And even if Iran did try to create a blockade, what if other countries in the region tried to send a civilian vessel through the strait? Would Iran really try to sink a Qatari ship or a Bahraini tanker? Such a move would give ally the United States justification to enter the fray, and the powerful U.S. fifth fleet would not only have superior firepower, but also legal justification to flex its muscles.  

In his article “Iranians, The pioneers of navigation in the Persian Gulf,” Iranian historian Hossein Nourbakhsh says: “According to the writings of the ancient Greeks, including Herodotus, and to the allusions made in the Aristotle’s book on politics, ancient Iranians were the first great navigators of the world.”

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But having laid a political mine for Obama, Iran’s leaders will need all their navigational skills to avoid falling into their own trap.