Tension between the United States and Iran reached levels not seen in more than 20 years when, on Wednesday, Iranian military officials threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the 34-mile wide channel through which more than one-third of the world's oil tanker traffic passes. Habibollah Sayyari, commander of Iran's navy, bragged that closing the Strait would be easier than drinking a glass of water.
While the threat from a resurgent Iran is real, its bluster about closing the Strait is more diversion than danger. The waterway may be an economic chokehold, but it is also a vital passage for Iran's survival. The Islamic Republic is not only the world's third-largest exporter of oil. Because of decades of mismanagement, it is also a voracious consumer of imported gasoline: Iran must import 40% of the refined petroleum it needs not only to run its automobiles, but also to power its factories and extract oil. To close the Strait of Hormuz even for a day would do far more damage to the Iranian economy than it would to the West.
The Islamic Republic's goal may still be more financial than military. Iran's economy is teetering. In the past nine months, Iran's currency has lost a third of its value against the dollar. Unemployment and inflation are both in the double digits. To keep afloat, Iran needs high oil prices. Should the price of oil fall below $80 per barrel, even the brutal Revolutionary Guards may not be able to maintain domestic stability for long. They know that by simply threatening tanker traffic, they can drive up the price of oil, adding hundreds of millions of dollars to their coffers.
Should Tehran really want to strike a blow at the West, their target would not be the Strait. While Iranian small boats, mines and anti-ship missiles can harass international shipping, American firepower is overwhelming. The United States always maintains one or two aircraft carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf or just outside in the Sea of Oman. Whether by chance or design, the U.S. Navy will soon have three aircraft carriers in the vicinity of Iran. Two — the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln — turned around after full deployments last year in near record time. There are no Iranian boats or planes which the U.S. military does not monitor 24/7.
Any Iranian challenge to the Strait would be suicide. When the Iranian government mined the Persian Gulf in 1988, damaging a U.S. guided missile frigate, President Ronald Reagan launched Operation Preying Mantis, simultaneously attacking two Iranian oil platforms. In the surrounding firefight, Iran lost a frigate, a gunboat, three speedboats and, temporarily, two oil platforms. The U.S. lost one helicopter, the casualty of a crash rather than battle damage. Had Iranian pilots not turned tail and ran, they would have been added to the casualty list on what became the largest U.S. surface engagement since World War II.
The Iranian leadership knows that if they want to threaten international markets, the vulnerability is not by sea but rather on land. On Dec. 22, Iraq's deputy prime minister claimed that Iraq's oil exports had surpassed 3 million barrels per day. If Iranian-backed militias or saboteurs destroyed pipelines or Iraq's single Persian Gulf oil terminal, oil prices would skyrocket. Iraq's South Oil Company has taken no obvious contingencies to ward off the threat, and with the American withdrawal, Iraq's vulnerability has only increased.
The crisis in the Strait may soon pass, but the real threat at the far end of the Persian Gulf remains.