Iran’s saber-rattling is harmful

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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The Strait of Hormuz is the gateway for most of the oil leaving the Gulf region. It is about 7 Km wide.

Iran’s recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz are almost certainly just that – empty threats. But it is the sort of ill-conceived bluster that could have unintended consequences. And doubling the price of oil is only one manifestation of such impact. The Strait of Hormuz is a 6.4km wide channel between Iran and Oman at the mouth of the Gulf through which more than one-third of the world’s tanker-borne oil, or about 15 million barrels of oil, pass daily.

“Iran has total control over the strategic waterway,” Iranian Naval Commander Admiral Habibollah Sayari told Iran’s Press TV as the Iranian navy conducted a 10-day exercise in international waters. “Closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy for Iranian naval forces.”

The threats are in direct response to US and European calls for tighter economic sanctions against Iran. Barack Obama the US President is preparing to sign a legislation that could substantially reduce Iran’s oil revenue by diminishing its sales volume, forcing Tehran to give its customers a discount on the price of crude oil. Conversely, Britain, France, and Germany are pushing for an embargo on Iranian oil exports to Europe. “If sanctions are adopted against Iranian oil, not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz,” said Mohammad Reza Rahimi, a vice president.

Threats to block the Strait of Hormuz have long been Tehran’s favorite diplomatic cudgel. As the conduit for much of the oil from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, as well as Qatari gas, the strait is vital to the world’s energy markets and the Gulf’s economic well-being. This is not only a threat against the West but against the world.

Iran does have the military capability to close the strait – no great feat seeing as it is less than seven kilometers at its narrowest. The country’s arsenal includes surface-to-ship missiles, sea mines, and numerous small fast-attack craft. It is enough to block oil tankers from passing through the strait, although that might start a war.

Domestic Iranian politics are probably playing a part in Tehran’s saber rattling. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government may well be keen to demonstrate its strength in the face of western challenges and to deflect attention from Iran’s economic problems ahead of parliamentary elections in March. The Iranian president is locked in a power struggle with fellow conservatives who are loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Tehran’s leaders, I hope, are well aware that a war would be as disastrous for Iran as any other country. As such, these statements are very close to errant nonsense, a poor attempt at risk-taking that plays well for a domestic audience. The threat to close the strait cannot be taken at face value, but neither is it harmless posturing. In the high-stakes game in the Middle East, with hawks in Israel and elsewhere eager for strikes against Iran, bellicose rhetoric inflames hotheads on every side. It is indicative of Iran’s crisis of leadership that senior politicians will sound off with so little regard for the region’s stability and the welfare of their own citizens.

The U.S. has warned Iran that it will not tolerate any disruption of naval traffic through the Straits. But such a response could require the U.S. to change its military posture in the Persian Gulf region at a time when the U.S. is facing intense budget pressures and the Obama administration has signaled its intention to focus more attention on the Pacific. The best weapon against Iran’s threats is the promise by Saudi Arabia to offset any resultant oil shortage. Utilizing other land and sea pipelines may ease the blockade of the Straits. As for the price of oil, expect it to significantly increase. And this may have been Iran’s intent all along.

Dr. Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.

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