Sometimes the threat of war is necessary to avert war. Other times the threat of war completes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where Iran’s threat to close the Straight of Hormuz falls on this scale remains obscured, but blocking any part of the vital waterway will give its adversaries exactly what they want - pretext to begin military engagement.
Tehran’s fresh threat to close Hormuz - this is far from the first time - presumably makes sense at the popular level. Although Western politicians and populaces commonly perceive Iran as the Gulf’s unilateral aggressor, its behavior is partially explained by hostile encroachment. No real outreach has occurred under President Barack Obama, only a dual track of superficial diplomacy and covert operations. Surrounded by international sanctions and a regional military “umbrella” constructed by Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem, Iranian officials such as Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi have no choice except to puff up their chests.
Iran’s navy commander, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, added that closing the strait is “easier than drinking a glass of water.”
This threat is, ironically, as transparent as water. Unnamed Iranian officials and named economic analysts have already conceded the reality that closing Hormuz “would be committing economical suicide,” according to an official at the Ministry of Oil. In addition to a variety of traded goods, more oil flows through the 21-mile wide straight on a daily basis than any other global choke-point. Unless Iranian forces can maintain control of the straight while denying every other actor - practically impossible - Tehran is stuck on a counterproductive threat.
The timing of Rahimi’s statements is equally questionable. Peruse Iran’s media and one is sure to find ample condemnation of America’s response to the Arab revolutions; Tehran has now shifted the entire region’s focus to itself. This diversion will produce minimal effects in Syria, where Iran seeks to draw attention away from whatever Arab League monitors find during their survey. Conversely, Tehran’s threat sucked the available oxygen away from Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, a public enemy, amid comparisons to the Shah.
Iran’s political and military spheres ultimately merge in Bahrain, where Shia protesters are demonstrating against historic marginalization under King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. After releasing his Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which found minimal evidence of Iranian involvement, the King exercised his authority by delving into classified intelligence. BICI chairman Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni had reached his own conclusion after being denied access, but Hamad and his men assured Bahrainis that Tehran was driving the uprising.
Last Friday government forces opened fire on Al Wefaq’s office, generating no response from Washington. Now Iran is directly widening Bahrain’s blackout by giving a defined purpose to America’s Fifth Fleet. This pattern should continue for an indefinite period of time - as long as Washington can maintain it - and leads directly into the possibility of armed confrontation. The U.S. Navy is “ready to counter malevolent actions,” spokeswoman Lt. Rebecca Rebarich declared in an emailed statement.
“Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations. Any disruption will not be tolerated.”
Threatening to close Hormuz is like throwing a life raft to U.S. policy in the Arab world. Washington remains in a position of strength due to its overwhelming resources and political weight, but some areas of interests are taking on heavy water. Iran’s rhetoric buoys these weak spots - Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq - by feeding Washington’s appetite for fear. Any large-scale confrontation over Hormuz could also transition into an exhaustive strike on its nuclear program.
Given that heightened tensions in the Gulf reinforce U.S.-Saudi hegemony, Tehran appears to have lost its psychological battle by default.