Commentary Magazine

Why Iran Threatens Shipping

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greets a group of Revolutionary Guard officers involved in the detention of U.S. Navy sailors. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Once again, a senior Iranian commander has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to U.S. shipping. According to the Associated Press:

The remarks by the acting commander of the Guard also follow those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who on Monday criticized U.S. activities in the Persian Gulf. It’s unclear whether that signals any new Iranian concern over the strait or possible confrontation with the U.S. following its nuclear deal with world powers. In his remarks, Salami said, “Americans should learn from recent historical truths,” likely referring to the January capture of 10 U.S. sailors who entered Iranian waters. The sailors were released less than a day later, though state TV aired footage of the sailors on their knees with their hands on their heads. “If the Americans and their regional allies want to pass through the Strait of Hormuz and threaten us, we will not allow any entry,” Salami said, without elaborating on what he and other leaders would consider a threat.

This isn’t the first time Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. They did it five years ago, and at several points prior to that. Indeed, it does so frequently, usually for one of two reasons:

  • First is to bolster the price of oil. Iran is a rentier state. The notion that economic reform can gain traction against the opposition of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other entrenched interests is belied by the experience of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president between 1989 and 1997. Rafsanjani long cultivated a reputation as an economic reformer and, while he was business friendly largely to support his own businesses, he was nevertheless serious about freeing the Iranian economy from some of the worst legacies of state-centered management philosophy. And yet, even a powerbroker as well connected as he was not able to implement any significant reforms. The quickest way to make a bundle is to spout off rhetoric about closing the Strait of Hormuz. That alone is usually enough to add a few dollars to the price of a barrel for a short period of time. It might not last, but it’s enough to reap a few extra hundred million dollars.
  • The second reason is simply to exploit American weakness. The Supreme Leader’s demand that the United States leave the Persian Gulf and its international waterways is actually nothing new. For example, he made the demand on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and has constantly demanded the U.S. remove its “iron fist” from beneath its velvet glove, a flowery way of demanding the removal of the U.S. Navy from the Persian Gulf. Such demands tend to gain momentum when the Supreme Leader believes the United States to be weak. He began the 2009 speech, for example, by noting how frequently President Obama reached out. “He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree!” before demanding good faith required U.S. withdrawal. He has become all the more convinced of American weakness as Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have caved to every new Iranian demand and objection. They were tests not of American generosity, but of American strength, and Khamenei concluded the U.S. wanting.

Herein lies the danger. It’s not in Iran’s interest to close the Strait of Hormuz: They need to import gasoline just as much as they need to export oil. But if they truly believe the United States to be a paper tiger and if they believe the American nativism on display in both Democratic and Republic primaries means that the reaction to an incident will be to turn and run, they might push at American forces in the region perhaps further than any American leader would ever allow.

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