Iran, likely feeling the need to try and gain some leverage in the discussion over new sanctions, has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes through. This threat should be prepared for, but cannot be taken too seriously, as it is the equivalent of pointing the gun to one’s own head.
To start, Iran would be crippling its economy by closing the Strait. Petroleum accounts for the majority of government revenue, as well as the vast majority of Iran’s exports. Iran relies on the Strait of Hormuz for oil shipment just like the other Gulf countries, and the Iranians have had issues with their own pipelines. Even if there were no issues with their pipelines, they were not built to replace oil tankers. Any attempt at closing the Strait for a long enough time to do long-term economic damage to the West would inevitably cripple the Iranian economy.
Iran would also not be able to maintain any shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz. The inevitable result of this action would be military conflict, as a long-lasting shutdown of the Strait would be unacceptable to both the other Gulf countries and the oil-dependent global economy. This type of conflict would play exactly towards the strengths of the United States and its allies by becoming a naval and aerial conflict. Any military conflict with the West, and in particular the U.S., would be remarkably lopsided. Iran’s navy has no ship larger than a frigate, with the majority of equipment being outdated and small in quantity. The air force is almost non-existent, consisting mostly of aircraft from before the fall of the Shah. In an environment where many are just looking for an excuse to hit Iran’s nuclear reactors and neuter Iran’s military capabilities, the regime would be playing right into their hands.
Finally, such a maneuver would further alienate Iran from all of the Gulf countries. Iran already does not have good relations with Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, but shutting the Strait of Hormuz would push the UAE and Qatar further away from Iran. Iraq, whose Shiite-led government has better relations with Iran than most, would also be hurt by such a move from Tehran. Around the world, countries would be less inclined to work with Iran, who would become even more of a global pariah. It would also encourage other countries to seek out other sources of petroleum (such as Canada) and further develop alternative energy sources, neither of which is beneficial for Tehran.
Why Iran felt the need to use this threat over sanctions, one cannot be sure. What is fairly certain is that the political, military, and economic consequences of closing the Strait of Hormuz would be so dire for the current Iranian regime as to be considered nearly suicidal. This action could cause some economic distress in the West, but it would be nothing in comparison to the consequences faced by Iran. Those in charge of Iranian foreign and military policy surely know this as well, and they have not proven to be fools over the past 30 years. As such, this threat rings hollow, and such words should not intimidate those nations who wish to impose new sanctions on Iran.
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