With the European Union ban imposed on the import of Iran’s oil going under effect on July 1, 2012, once again the issue of shutting down the Strait of Hormuz by Iran has become significant. This has in turn brought up the question of what Iran’s strategy in the Strait of Hormuz actually is?
Regarding the realization of Iran’s threat, there are two perspectives in the West. The first perspective, based more on a defensive standpoint, perceives Iran’s threat to be nothing more than a bluff, merely set to showcase their power, stating that Iran might be able to close the Strait for a while; however, lacks the superior military power to continue this act.
From this perspective, Iran will not close the Strait of Hormuz for the following three reasons: first, Iran’s economy is dependent on the oil revenues exported through the Strait. Second, Iran’s action could provoke the US harsh military reaction as well as its allies giving the necessary pretext to the West to seize control of the Strait and to possibly announce it as an international passage. And third, the possible negative reaction of other countries for the sake of their own geopolitical interests, dependency on the flow of oil, and economic exchanges. Some of these countries such as Russia, China, Iraq, Turkey, India and etc., are even considered to be Iran’s friends. For instance, Iraq has recently announced that some 1.7 million barrels of its oil exports pass through this very Strait maintaining that Iran should not shut down the passage.
The second perspective, based more on an offensive standpoint, on the contrary, believes that once Iran perceives that its economic security and interests are in jeopardy, it will react through shutting down the Strait. From this perspective also Iran will commit this act for three reasons: first, in an attempt to increase the price of oil, thereby preempting any all-out prospective military attack by the West. Second, there is the ideological nature of Iran, which will result in a forceful and harsh military reaction during crises. And third, the sensitization of the region in order to increase the economic and political vulnerability of the Persian Gulf’s Arab countries as they are considered as the weakening points of the West.
But the fact is that Iran’s strategy is mid-way; while Iran’s economic interests force it to not close the Strait of Hormuz, it is most likely that if Iran’s economic security is endangered it will react. Because the issue of Iran’s energy exports is directly related to the country’s national security and the government’s legitimacy.
But this reaction will be more focused on a “defensive deterrence”. This means taking a “measured” reaction towards confronting the states which have acted against Iran’s interests in the issue of the sanctions. Iran had previously conducted this strategy during the Tanker War in the 1980s. One should note that in terms of conducting an asymmetric war, Iran is today in a much more powerful position for taking out such operations.
Iran’s defensive deterrence strategy is based on three aspects: first, the increase of the “relative security” through preserving its economic security and interests. From Iran’s perspective, the security in the region is “interdependent” meaning that insecurity for Iran is equivalent to insecurity for the others. For instance, if the situation were to reach a point that Iran could not export any of its oil, it is likely that Iran would not let the other Arab countries of the region, which have sided with the West on the issue of the sanctions, acting against Iran’s interests, to export their oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
Second, acting as a rational state reacting in a calculated way from the power position, along with conducting a policy based on the region’s geopolitical realities, thus avoiding giving any pretext to the adversary states that are interested to show that Iran is not a responsible country and that it can act against the world’s free trades and international energy security. And third, Iran, through benefiting from its advantageous geographical status at the Strait of Hormuz, tries to preserve the security of the Persian Gulf. As a constant in Iran’s defense strategy benefiting from this geopolitical advantage, even during the Shah’s regime, preserving the security of the Strait of Hormuz and preserving Iran’s energy security, along with the international energy security was a focal part of Iran’s defense strategy.
The aim of the defensive deterrence in not to close the Strait of Hormuz, but to rather take a measured action based on controlling those ships which do business with the adversary countries in the way in and out of the Strait. As it was put recently by a senior IRGC official, it is a “smart control”. In other words, this strategy deals more with the soft and political --not hard and military-- aspect of the “security” in order to justify the legitimacy of the “interdependent security” in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s increased military maneuvers and missile tests seem to have taken place in this regard.
Relating the interests of the international community, as well as regional Arab regimes to the security of the Strait of Hormuz could be a point of pressure on the United States and its Western allies and thus a deterring opportunity for Iran. For instance, the ships’ inspection operation by Iran will increase the oil side-costs such as the insurance risk. Meanwhile, spreading political-security instability in the region, especially with the advent of the Arab Spring, will itself challenge the pillars of the Arab regimes’ legitimacy.
Preserving the security in the Strait of Hormuz is the priority of Iran’s defensive deterrence strategy in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s policy in the Strait of Hormuz will certainly be a measured and rational one, based on taking full responsibility, along with considering the geopolitical realities of the region. As Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces emphasized, the Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important routes for energy flow in the world and Iran would not close the key route unless the country’s interests are put in peril. This statement shows that Iran perceives the issue of the Strait in the context of global dynamics. Based on this strategy, even through the hardest economic conditions Iran would not shut down the Strait of Hormuz.
Lastly, Iran should only use the deterring factor of shutting down the strategic Strait of Hormuz, in a possible military action against the country, conducted by the United States and its allies. In such circumstances, since the action is against the United Nations’ Charter, Iran’s action will be perceived as a “legitimate defense.”