The Iranian mullahs have spent the last few days rattling their sabres in an attempt to fend off tougher economic sanctions in response to their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, Tina wrote about the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Today, their naval minister bragged that closing the vital sea lane would be “easier than drinking a glass of water”:
Closing off the Gulf to oil tankers will be “easier than drinking a glass of water” for Iran if the Islamic state deems it necessary, state television reported on Wednesday, ratcheting up fears over the world’s most important oil chokepoint.
“Closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran’s armed forces is really easy … or as Iranians say it will be easier than drinking a glass of water,” Iran’s navy chief Habibollah Sayyari told Iran’s English language Press TV.
“But right now, we don’t need to shut it as we have the Sea of Oman under control and we can control the transit,” said Sayyari, who is leading 10 days of exercises in the Strait.
Not too many people think Iran wants to provoke a military confrontation with the US, which has pledged to keep the strait open for business, and almost no one thinks Iran would be able to accomplish it:
“The threat by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz supported the oil market yesterday, but the effect is fading today as it will probably be empty threats as they cannot stop the flow for a longer period due to the amount of U.S. hardware in the area,” said Thorbjoern bak Jensen, an oil analyst with Global Risk Management.
If one believes that the Obama administration might be itching for a military confrontation with the mullahs — the same was said about the Bush administration, but never occurred — then a blockade of oil exports from the Middle East would be a casus belli for the US and other Western nations, or at least enough to engage the Iranian navy and its ports. That kind of conflict could leave Iranians with few options to export their own goods, even those that have managed to avoid sanctions or get traded to countries that haven’t cooperated with sanctions. It would send the kind of economic shock that could permanently destabilize the regime in Tehran, which is another reason that this threat may be empty — at least until the mullahs figure they have nothing left to lose.
Even at that point, the threat will be empty. Earlier today, the Saudis called the Iranian bluff:
Oil prices fell on Wednesday, as Saudi Arabia said it will offset any loss of oil from a threatened Iranian blockade of a crucial tanker route. …
Iranian officials have said that Iran might close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, if western nations embargo the country’s oil because of its ongoing nuclear program.
A Saudi oil ministry official told The Associated Press that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf producers are ready to provide more oil if necessary. Some analysts think the Iranian threats are more posturing than a real concern.
Closing the strait will also damage the Iranian economy, even if the US doesn’t target their port facilities in retaliation. After all, Iran has to export through the Strait of Hormuz, too, and the minimum Western response to an Iranian blockade will be a reciprocal blockade and the seizure of all Iranian transports. It would be a desperation move indeed, and probably not one that would result in a rally-round-the-mullahs moment in Iran.
Update: The Washington Post explains why this is almost certainly a bluff:
Despite its latest warnings in response to the possibility of a Western oil boycott, Iran is unlikely to make good on its repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz because the Islamic Republic needs the strategic waterway as much as or more than its adversaries, analysts say. …
And Iran itself — which has enjoyed record oil profits over the past five years but is faced with a dwindling number of oil customers — relies on the Hormuz Strait as the departure gate for its biggest client: China.
“We would be committing economical suicide by closing off the Hormuz Strait,” said an Iranian Oil Ministry official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “Oil money is our only income, so we would be spectacularly shooting ourselves in the foot by doing that.”
Ahmad Bakhshayesh Ardestani, a political scientist running for parliament from the camp of hard-line clerics and commanders opposing Ahmadinejad, said it is “good politics” for Iran to respond to U.S. threats with threats of its own.
“But our threat will not be realized,” Ardestani said. “We are just responding to the U.S., nothing more.”
Besides, the UAE — whose exports would be most impacted by an Iranian blockade of the strait — will shortly complete a pipeline that bypasses Hormuz altogether. They can pump 2.5 million barrels a day through the pipeline, which would more than negate Iranian action.