Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Dire Straits

So what happens if the Iranians try and close the Strait of Hormuz? In light of the recent threats emerging from Tehran, the question begs examination. How likely are the Iranians to attempt such a provocative action, and how effectively can they actually execute such an operation?

Lots of questions. And since we are talking about the Mullah Regime, we will end up relying on speculation for many of our answers. There is something in the Hormuz threat that reminds one of the recent rhetorical storm raging in Pyongyang, as if Tehran is attempting to let the world know exactly what cards its holding, lest someone make a hasty Security Council vote. Of course, the Iranians didn't just realize last week that the Strait is strategic, so one imagines that whether it is internal or external, the regime is feeling pressure from somewhere. Many observers have been waiting for the Persian version of the Arab Spring, but more pressing than the possibility of street eruptions are the divisions internal to the regime. Ayatollah Khamenei finds himself in the unenviable position of dealing with a conflict between economic reformers loyal to Ahmadinejad on one hand, and the Revolutionary Guard and its wealthy, merchant class patrons on the other. While the major figures of 2009's Green Revolt are largely incapacitated, popular uprising is not beyond the realm of possibility. So the regime heads towards a critical, perhaps historical moment, with elections set to be held in March of this year. The stakes are incredibly high, and it may well prove a transformative moment for Iran.

Hence the threat to close the Strait; a regime being backed into a corner, looking for an enemy to rally the reluctant, and severely underfed and underpaid masses. Heavy sanctions could cripple a regime that is already suffering from economic stangnation and a currency, the rial, in virtual freefall. Khamenei views this as an act of war, and would attempt to the close the Strait in response. Of course, it is important to remember that this would be more of a severe nuisance than an actual crippling blow. In a paper for the journal International Security, Caitlin Talmadge discussed in 2008 the potential outcomes of an Iranian military closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Talmadge presents a detailed analysis that explores best and worst case scenarios, and her analysis benefitted from a dialogue with William O'Neil, a former Defense Department official and Navy officer. Both Talmadge's original paper, as well as the subsequent O'Neil correspondance, warrants attention, as it detail the actual logistics and material concerns of a Hormuz closure. However, the take-away from the discussion is that any closure of the Strait would be, again, more of a temporary nuisance to the US and the West than a decisive strategic blow. Furthermore, it would likely cause great exposure, and ultimately great cost to Iranian command and control infrastructure on its Gulf flank, and possibly further inward.

Would Khamenei risk such costs in order to rally the nation around a crumbling regime? Thus far, the consensus seems to be that the Iranian people are nothing if not proud, and that as with so many nations, the external enemy always takes precedence. However, such a gambit on the regime's part may finally galvanize a revolutionary moment, if a group or groups can convince the Iranian people that the mullahs are simply using them as pawns in a game of self-preservation. As stated before, the threat of the closure reveals a desperate moment, what remains to be seen is who will best capitalize and seize the day.


  1. So, essentially, if cool heads prevail in Washington, the whole "crisis" could be allowed to play out in Iran (Tehran) itself, with the Fifth Fleet just baring its teeth but doing nothing? It sounds like it might work. But there are so many HOT heads...

  2. Ken, first of all, thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

    Essentially, yes, I believe that would be the way forward. However, your point about too many HOT heads is prudent, but I think that threat is evidence of a depseration. Washington and Tel-Aviv know full well that Iran is not much of a conventional threat. What I fear most is not that this will escalate, but that Washington misses an opportunity for some creative problem solving.