The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to rattle their scimitars, threatening a crisis in the Strait of Hormuz. Bring it on.
Iran is under increasing pressure to abandon its nuclear program. The United States is about to ban commerce with Iran’s central bank. The European Union is considering a new round of economic sanctions and joining the U.S. oil embargo against Iran. Saudi Arabia has decided to increase production to fill the gap should Europeans stop buying Iranian oil.
In response, Tehran is threatening to stop all Persian Gulf oil shipments. “If they impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports,” Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said Tuesday, “then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.” On Wednesday, Iran’s top sailor, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, said his country “has comprehensive control” over the strait and it would be “easier than drinking a glass of water” to close it to shipping. His forces are currently in the midst of a 10-day military exercise - called Velayat-e 90 (Supremacy 90) - to test capabilities and requirements for such an access-denial operation. About 17 percent of the world’s imported oil - a third of oil transported by sea - goes through this strategic chokepoint.
Iran’s threat makes no economic sense. Closing the strait would shut off Iran’s main source of income and deny its people necessary imports such as gasoline, food and consumer goods. The hardships of a closure would fall mainly on the Islamic regime as the rest of the world adjusted to the temporary and relatively minor oil shortage.
Closing the strait makes even less military sense. Iran would assume the role of the aggressor and lose whatever international legitimacy it has. Perhaps Tehran thinks disrupting the regional seaborne oil trade is a justifiable response to an oil embargo or other aspects of economic warfare. There are, however, significant legal ramifications for initiating the use of overt military force in an international waterway. The United Nations could authorize member states to take whatever means necessary to reopen the strait, and even if permanent U.N. Security Council members Russia or China decide to veto such a resolution, NATO or an ad-hoc international coalition could legally take action.
Once a military response is authorized, Iran would pay a devastating price. Reopening the strait would involve operations spanning the entire Gulf. Iran’s navy - comprising eight light surface warships, two dozen nonnuclear submarines and numerous small attack boats - would quickly be destroyed. Any air assets in the theater would be eliminated. Land-based anti-ship missile batteries would be hunted down and bombed. Iran may be able to conduct a few successful attacks on coalition ships or aircraft, and whatever seaborne mines Iran manages to lay may pose a temporary hazard, but none of this would leave the outcome of the crisis in doubt.
Iran would be branded an international aggressor state and be subject to a variety of tougher sanctions and military actions. A theaterwide response to the strait closure would involve airstrikes on military and leadership targets throughout the country, and the crisis could be a useful pretext for international action against Iran’s nuclear program. The precedent was established with Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, after which the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 687, which, among other things, established a mechanism for robust enforcement of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and led to the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s original nuclear program.
If the Islamic Republic wants to commit suicide, then by all means, close the Strait of Hormuz right away.
The Washington Times