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.