Does Iran Seek Calculated Control of the Strait of Hormuz?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Keyhan Barzegar
Professor of International Relations

The policy announced by the US President Donald Trump to “reduce to zero” Iran's oil exports followed by declaration of readiness by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to fill Iran's oil void, elicited a sharp reaction from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who stipulated that “if Iran's oil is not exported, no other oil will be exported from the region either.” This remark was construed as an innuendo to the possible blocking of the strategic Strait of Hormuz by Iran. This development gave birth to new debates about Iran's practical strategy for closing the Strait of Hormuz if and when the economic security of the country is threatened.

Some analysts viewed Iran's threat just as a show of force, noting that Iran may be able to keep the Strait of Hormuz closed for a short period of time, but in practice, the superior military power of the United States, who considers itself committed to maintaining the energy flow through this strait under any conditions, will prevent continuation of this strategy or reduce the effectiveness that Iran expects from it. Meanwhile, they noted, a possible military reaction from the United States would be supported by other member of the international community like Europe, China, India and Japan, which are dependent on importing energy from this region and doing economic transactions in the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, Iran itself also needs an open strait to export its goods and continue economic exchanges with the world.

There is another viewpoint, which on the contrary believes that when Iran sees its economic interests and security in jeopardy, it will block the Strait of Hormuz and this approach has a traditional and large-scale strategic background in Iran's defense strategy in the Persian Gulf. As a result, it has been always emphasized as an unchanging strategic principle for Iran in the Persian Gulf both before and after the victory of the Islamic Revolution. Therefore, Iran has greatly boosted its symmetrical and asymmetrical defense capabilities in recent years and in some cases has even gone as far as direct confrontation with the American forces in the region in order to stress its right and responsibility in this region. In reality, if Iran sees its economic security in danger when its oil exports hit zero, it is sure to show a reaction. However, the main goal of this reaction is to add new dynamism to security of international energy flow and to make use of the country’s geostrategic advantage in order to affect the global economy. Let us not forget that although getting involved in any crisis has its own specific risks, it also triggers a new dynamism in power equations and leads to new arrangement of countries’ roles, which at any rate, will prompt the rival power to show calculated reactions. Therefore, Iran's real strategy is not to totally close the Strait of Hormuz, but to control it in a “calculated” manner or even prevent certain regional countries – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – from exporting their oil. These countries have been clearly trying to disrupt Iran's economic security, and subsequently its stability and national security, in cooperation with Trump's administration and the Israeli regime and through clear threats of war.

During the period known as “the war of tankers” in the 1980s, Iran had implemented this policy, which of course, entailed its own risks such as military escort of some hostile Arab countries’ tankers by the United States Navy. When Hassan Rouhani talked about preventing oil exports by other countries, he aimed to put more emphasis on Iran's traditional strategy, which believes that security of all regional countries is “intertwined.” Therefore, bringing up this issue at this time was more meant to make a political and preventive effect rather than being focused on the hard and military aspect of the issue and was meant to underline regional countries’ legitimate right to take advantage of their economic interests and geopolitical advantages under critical conditions.

It is notable that connecting the energy security of hostile Arab regimes of the region to security of the Strait of Hormuz can be used as a deterrent and introduce new dynamism to regional equations. For example, inspecting ships will increase collateral costs, such as risk insurance, for countries that import energy from this region. Therefore, it can increase oil prices, cause general discontent in international public opinion and among oil importing countries, and finally mount pressure on their governments. On the other hand, increased political and security instability in the region will call into question legitimacy of Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf.

Last but not least, maintaining security of the Strait of Hormuz, in particular, and security and stability of the Persian Gulf, in general, is an important part of Iran's defensive deterrent strategy and guarantees the country’s stability and economic growth. Iran has traditionally seen security of the Strait of Hormuz beyond its regional aspects and as a major component of international security and, therefore, its approach to this issue has been a rational one based on accurate strategic calculations. However, it must be noted that the policy, which aims to reduce Iran's oil export to zero, would be a hostile and illegitimate measure aimed at depriving a nation of its economic interests. Therefore, it would be at odds with the Charter of the United Nations and all rules of international law. Under these conditions, resorting to the geostrategic advantage of “calculated control” of the Strait of Hormuz will be a measure against the interests of hostile countries, and therefore, a form of “legitimate self-defense.”

*Photo Credit: Qura


*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.