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Why Iran’s Play for the Strait of Hormuz is Counter Intuitive

In August, Gen. Alireza Tangsiri, commander of Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, made a statement claiming that Iran had obtained ‘full control’ of the Strait of Hormuz, a passage between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The comment came in response to the reimplementation of debilitating economic sanctions on Iran by the United States after President Trump repealed the JCPOA in May.

Roughly 30% of the world’s oil tankers pass through the strait each year. Additionally, nearly 17 million barrels of oil pas through the strait per day. To the Iranians, control of the strait would suggest to the United States a significant level of control over the world’s oil market, forcing the hand of the U.S. to remove the sanctions which are currently in place.

In September the Iranians followed up their assertion with a series of war games near the strait, carried out as a joint exercise between the army and the IRGC. The games consisted of fighter jets, combat helicopters, and over 600 nautical vessels, demonstrating Iran’s strength in region.

Despite the potential harm this could cause, both the United States and the Saudis have responded with a seemingly unified message. Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, stated in August that “the U.S. and its partners will ensure that the Strait of Hormuz is open to commercial navigation.” The Saudis have said that, in their eyes, Iran will not be able to close, or even partially close the strait, due to their lacking capabilities. Representatives from the Saudi camp have added that sanctions will not stop and the UN Security Council will not approve military retaliation either.

The United States has also noted the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made threats to close the strait in the past, never following through. These past examples of Iranian threats seem to have lessened the gravity of this most recent claim. These doubts, however, may only strengthen the Iranian’s resolve to show that they can, in fact, close the strait. If they can, United States-Iran tensions will only continue to build, creating disastrous results for the region. Furthermore, understanding the character of United States President Donald Trump, a threat of this nature will possibly lead to conflict between the two countries.

With a poor economy and falling oil prices, conflict would not reflect traditional warfare on the side of Iran. Instead, cyber-warfare on behalf of the Iranians may ensue, a possibility which the United States must be wary of as the relationship between the countries intensifies. ‘War’ with Iran would complicate the current situation in Israel as well as the United States’ relationship with China and Russia.

However, these doubts have not eased tensions near the strait. In September, CBS reported that Iran’s state television broadcasted footage showing an encounter between the IRGC and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the strait. Apparently as a show of force by the Iranians, Americans aboard the vessel were warned to “refrain from the threat or use of force in any manner” and to “keep well clear” of the patrol boats in the area. This was not the first encounter like this.

While Iran’s move to pressure the United States into lightening their current economic sanctions is a logical use of soft power, however, the move has only given the United States more reason to tighten their relationship with Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, as the relationship between the Saudis and the United States intensifies, the power distribution in the Gulf will continue to shift in the Saudi’s favor, gradually ridding Iran of any political or economic leverage in the region. If Iran wants to return the Gulf to its former tri-polar glory, it must curry favor with the Saudis. Whether that is turning attention to Israel as a potential destabilizing threat for both countries, or cooperating on issues such as human rights.

Consolidation of influence between the two countries would be monumental for the Gulf, and the Middle East as a whole. Iran has demonstrated a willingness to work with its Saudi rivals. And, although still an authoritarian regime, the Saudis have made strides towards aligning the country’s values with that of a democratic state – cracking down on terrorist funding within its borders, increasing human rights for women, modernizing transportation, and even working to fix its relationship with Germany after its Lebanon debacle. Proxy wars aside, the potential is there for these two countries to work together, but threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz will only protract the current rivalry which itself has been a destabilizing presence in the region.