Tehran’s hollow Hormuz strait threat
The real danger is much further inland

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Keim/US Navy

Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Timothy Birk and Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Leah Warren man a mounted double .50-caliber machine gun aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) while the ship transits through the Strait of Hormuz.

Article Highlights

  • Iranian leadership knows that if they really want to threaten international markets, the vulnerability is by land

    Tweet This

  • Iran would not target the Strait if it truly meant to strike the West

    Tweet This

  • Closing the Strait of Hormuz would do far more economic damage to Iran than the West

    Tweet This

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.

"Any Iranian challenge to the Strait would be suicide."--Michael Rubin

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.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Michael
Rubin


  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


    Follow Michael Rubin on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202-862-5851
    Email: mrubin@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Ahmad Majidyar
    Phone: 202-862-5845
    Email: ahmad.majidyar@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.