Sanctions rarely work. Targeted countries, sensing instability and isolation, react vindictively. Iran’s recent threat to close the Straits of Hormuz (should the U.S. ratchet up its sanctions) is clear evidence of this trend.
Commander of the Iranian Navy Adm. Habibollah Sayari has recently commissioned 10-day naval exercises in the Strait, boasting that cutting off oil exports from the 21-mile wide strait is “as easy as drinking a glass of water.” All evidence, however, points to a different reality. The U.S. should thus act independently of Iran’s saber-rattling. If the U.S. is really serious about stemming Iran’s nuclear threat, the Obama administration needs to turn the tide of influence: Start issuing ultimatums and free itself from those of others.
No one would argue Iran is a rational actor. Nonetheless, Iran has every reason to not follow through on its threat. If it’s afraid of the economic ramifications of a U.S. congressional bill imposing penalties against Western companies that deal with the Iran Central Bank, as well as a future EU oil embargo, then shutting off its only oil export route should surely evoke terror. This move would represent a self-imposed sanction, a nonsensical means of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” With Saudi Arabia agreeing to pick up the slack in response to the potential oil embargo, Iran would have the most to lose from closing the Strait, not world oil markets. Iran relies on oil exports for 80% of its GDP. A combination of no way to move oil and no one to give it to is not a recipe for economic survival in a country that already shells out millions to enrich 20% uranium, the highest grade before atomic weapons capability.
Iran’s primary concerns are twofold: ideological (trumping Turkish secularism as the predominant influence in the region) and strategic (staving off instability). In the wake of U.S. drone strikes, a nuclear scientist assassination, and Israeli aggression, what Iran really seeks is a credible deterrent capability.
Professor Nikolas Gvosdev explains that “the best chance to alleviate some of their own insecurities is to continue to attain nuclear capability, not threaten that by testing international patience in a naval skirmish it can’t win.” The Iran-Iraq War reveals how history might repeat itself. Obama, along with the British government, has made clear that closing the Strait of Hormuz – which would eliminate 20% of the world’s oil supply and send prices soaring – constitutes casus belli.
Iran’s temptation for a naval skirmish defies its clear objectives. Americans are on their way out. They have left Iraq and have plans to leave Afghanistan. This is a godsend to Iran’s nuclear program. Tucked away in the mountains, its nuclear facilities can only be wiped out by a ground invasion. Why risk ruining unimpeded uranium enrichment by dragging U.S. troops back into the region? The simple answer is Iran won’t; Iran cannot afford to close the Strait: politically, militarily, and economically. Their covert nuclear-weapons program is their only prized asset, an asset worth protecting above all else. Ahmedinajad is too crazy to not understand that.
From Karzai’s demand that the U.S. fork over the Parwan prisoners, to Pakistan’s insistence that the CIA close the Shamsi airbase, Iran’s saber-rattling fits a worrisome trend. The stronger the U.S. gets, the more law abiding and less likely we are to use force (with notable exceptions in Iraq and Afghanistan); consequently, the more that rogue states are driven to scrap together whatever leverage they have in order to protect their brittle sovereignty. Dreading what a total oil embargo would do to the attainment of a nuclear arsenal, Iran is resorting to fear tactics, stoking speculation of skyrocketing oil prices. Short of a nuclear weapon, media attention is Ahmedinajad’s strongest weapon. James Traub simplifies the matter: “the ultimatum has become largely a tool of the weak – a form of asymmetric warfare.”
To avoid driving up world oil prices, politicians need, then, to downplay Iran’s recalcitrance and emphasize Saudi Arabia’s willingness to step up production. Independent of the efficacy of sanctions, we must respond to Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz with the callous nonchalance it deserves. In short, Iran cannot afford to close the Strait of Hormuz, just as the U.S. cannot afford to be distracted from Iranian WMDs by a war of words.
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