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The Real Threat to America Iran May Close the Strait of Hormuz


The risk of miscalculation is now significantly higher.


President of Iran Hassan Rouhani threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to potential sanctions that could be levied upon Iranian oil exports, threats which were echoed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). President Donald Trump has given countries until November 4, 2018, to stop importing petroleum from Iran. This wide-scale ban is part of a new campaign of confrontation and pressure against the Islamic Republic. This demand comes on the heels of the U.S. departure from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015.


During negotiations, the JCPOA was marketed as the only option for curtailing Iran’s nuclear program short of war. Supporters of the deal routinely cited an increased risk of war in their arguments against exiting the deal and Rouhani’s statement, on the surface, appears to confirm such concerns. But how seriously should these threats be taken?


We’ve Been Here Before


Apart from the events that took place from 1987–88, none of these incidents resulted in open warfare. This is nothing short of remarkable, given the unrelenting level of hostility exhibited on both sides since the November 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. While the lack of actual fighting can be attributed to restraint and professional crisis management skills on the part of the United States, it can also be attributed to the fact that Iranian behavior and rhetoric regarding the Strait primarily serves as a means of crisis-management (albeit a dangerous one) and a political purpose.


Threatening Closure Is More Useful than Executing One


Closing the Strait of Hormuz has a regressive impact on Iran’s interests. As John Allen Gay and Geoffrey Kemp explain in War With Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences :


Eighty-five percent of Iran’s imports come through the strait, and the oil exports so crucial to the Iranian government’s solvency mostly flow out of it. Iran would be cutting off its own lifeline if it closed the strait, and it would have to live on its already dwindling currency reserves. Iran would also be inviting attacks on its own oil facilities by vengeful neighbors, and it would isolate itself internationally.

伊朗85 %的进口要经过霍尔木兹海峡,对伊朗政府偿付能力至关重要的石油出口中的大部分也是从该海峡流出的。如果伊朗封锁该海峡,那么也将切断其自身的生命线,也就不得不依靠已经在减少的外汇储备生存下去了。伊朗也将招致报复心强的邻国对其石油设施进行攻击,并将在国际上孤立自己。

So, in contemplating any Strait of Hormuz closure scenario, it should immediately be noted such a move by Iran amounts to one of desperation, employed only in a situation in which Tehran sees no other way out of its predicament. Therefore, a Strait closure is unlikely, the United States is well-aware of this, and the Iranian leadership probably realizes Washington can call its bluff any time. So why does Tehran continue to make such threats?


By threatening to close the vital waterway lixing the oil-rich Persian Gulf with the world, through which approximately a third of the world’s petroleum is ferried, Iran stokes fears of war and economic crisis. This not only raises gas prices in anticipation of supply disruptions, but it also influences world opinion towards the direction of de-escalation, which would pressure the United States to back away from its own red lines. Given the number of countries that rely on Middle Eastern oil, including that of Iran, Tehran can craft a damning narrative that shows that the United States is generating a crisis to the world’s detriment.


These narratives work well at home, too. Like most autocracies, the Islamic regime regularly employs crises to establish political dominance and domestic order. The sights and sounds of Iranian naval forces challenging and harassing U.S. warships serves powerfully as propaganda, encouraging unity against the “Great Satan” that is America.


And while the United States has the capability to prevent a closure or re-open the Strait, the physical and political costs of such an undertaking are considerable. Assuming Iran would attempt a closure only when it feels it has no other recourse, it would then have little to lose from doing so, while the United States and the world would bear costs not easily recouped nor as readily borne in comparison.


What If Iran Were to Attempt a Strait Closure?


For example, Gay and Kemp estimated the cost of a Hormuz mine-clearance operation to be $230.1 million. Even something as routine as maintaining two carrier strike groups (CSGs) on-station for a week was estimated to be $106 million. In the event of a more serious military confrontation, a 2017 RAND report calls for the deployment of, among other things, twenty-one Air Force fighter squadrons and four CSGs. It is more difficult to estimate human casualties, but these numbers make clear there are prohibitive up-front costs to a crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, whether a full-blown shooting war erupts or not.

例如,盖伊和坎普估计霍尔木兹排雷行动的费用为2.301亿美元。甚至像维持两个航母打击群( CSGs )战备状态一周时间,这样例行公事的费用估计也要达到1.06亿美元。兰德公司2017年的一份报告呼吁,如果发生更严重的军事对抗,将要部署21个空军战斗机中队和4个航母打击群。要估计人员伤亡就更加困难了,但是这些数字清楚地表明,无论全面的军事对抗战争是否爆发,霍尔木兹海峡的危机都需要高昂的费用支持。

However, for reasons outlined earlier, the likelihood of a surprise closure is remarkably low. The United States and its allies are well-aware of such a possibility and have been, for decades, well-prepared for the scenario. The military superiority of the United States and its allies all but ensures an overwhelming defeat for the Ayatollah’s warriors. Most importantly, a surprise closure of the Strait acts to Iran’s detriment, unless the strategic environment is such that Tehran feels its back is against the wall and has little to lose from such desperation. Threatening closure is more useful than attempting one, thus, absent exigent circumstances, Iran’s leadership will always telegraph its intentions, if only to avoid a situation where they must choose between backing down and losing face or following through and hazard overwhelming defeat.


Though risk of miscalculation remains, Iran has considerably dialed back on its hostile behavior in the Strait, while increasing its aggressive activities elsewhere. But if Tehran wants its threats to at least be taken seriously, it may need to again resort to maritime provocations against commercial shipping and the U.S. military. Iran’s de-emphasizing of the Gulf in its strategy does not appear to be something that will last much longer.


The Israeli Wild-Card


Some observers are predicting a cataclysmic war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah in the near future. Given Hezbollah serves as Iran’s most prominent proxy, there are concerns such a conflict will draw Tehran in as well, risking a major regional conflagration. Israel has, in fact, already clashed numerous times with Iran-backed militias in Syria in recent weeks and months, raising the likelihood of direct warfare between Jerusalem and Tehran.


Although Washington does not possess a mutual-defense treaty with Jerusalem, the former would still support the latter’s war effort through the provision of armaments, logistics, intelligence support, among other products. Furthermore, the United States currently has troops deployed in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere throughout the region, along with the ongoing air war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In the event of a war between Israel and Hezbollah, potentially including Iran, it would take incredible diplomatic and military maneuvering to keep the United States directly out of the conflict.


The true course of any conflict is difficult to predict, but Washington should consider the possibility Iran may attempt to distract American support for Israel by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. By creating it crisis on the opposite end of the Middle East, Iran is not so much banking on forcing the United States to reduce support for Israel, but to overstretch its commitments, and create political and strategic costs the American people may not be willing to bear, given the generally controversial nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Once more, the importance of narratives emerges—threatening Strait closure mounts pressure on the White House to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict, due to the dread and uncertainty portending a U.S.-Iran clash would conjure.


Once again, however, blockading Hormuz proves an ineffective move if the United States is willing to counter Iran’s provocations. This means Iran is more likely to respond with low-intensity, deniable warfare by utilizing cyberwarfare its deep roster of militias and terrorist groups. Be it Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Gaza’s Hamas, or Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, the Ayatollah is likely to call upon these players long before seriously considering closing the Strait of Hormuz. Hezbollah, in particular, is among the most well-connected of terrorist groups in the world, possessing lixs with Central and South American drug cartels. A worst-case scenario would involve Hezbollah exploiting these connections to carry out terrorism on American soil. At the very least, it can be expected that Iranian-backed militias like the PMU can be used to attack U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria as the anti-ISIL campaign continues. This would force the United States/coalition to contemplate escalating their involvement in the multiple civil wars in the region, or, to their obvious detriment, refrain from retaliation.




Barring further developments, this latest threat from Tehran to close the Strait of Hormuz will likely pass without incident. It will, however, create the potential for close encounters between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the region, leaving open a window of heightened risk of miscalculation. Furthermore, the likelihood of a war between Hezbollah and possibly Iran continues to grow by the day. If or when that war happens, the United States and the coalition will find it difficult to stay out of the line of fire.