The Dire Straits: Crisis in the Strait of Hormuz Threatens to Lead to a Confrontation




Israel, Ma’ariv 

By Nadav Eyal




The reason is simple and very frightening. The Americans do not understand whether the Iranians understand them. The key words here are “credible threat.”



Translated by Viktoria Lymar


Edited by Steven Stenzler



17 January 2012



To the West, it’s not clear whether Iran is really about to close the Strait. To Tehran, it’s not clear whether the U.S. is going to respond with force. This way, a dangerous escalation is generated that could roll downhill.




Stories of espionage and assassination are always more fascinating than a faraway sea-lane and seemingly dry data on oil traffic; however, the reason for a potential war between the West and Iran is not hiding in the debris of the blown-up car of the scientist from the Natanz nuclear facility. This elimination, for all its dramatic descriptions in the Israeli and world media, is only a small detonator hooked up to a huge explosive charge.


It has contributed and continues to contribute to escalation in the dire straits with Iran, but the real story is not in the intelligence plots, but rather in the strategic steps. The genuine story of the aggravation in the course of the last weeks is in the blue and deep waters of Hormuz, the oxygen tube of the global economy.


A spot where 17 million barrels of oil are transferred daily – 20 percent of the world oil consumption, 40 percent of the oil transported by sea. There’s no more important strategic nexus for global energy security, and this very point is under severe threat.

The Regime Feels Choked



It started out small. A legislator in the Iranian Majlis (parliament) aired a statement apropos obstructing the strait as a trial balloon. The West mocked. At first, it looked like a slip of the tongue or the absurd expression of a junior governmental official and populist; if to draw an analogy with us – sort of an empty bluff of Gilad Erdan or Faina Kirshenbaum for the sake of primaries. Nevertheless, the global markets talked back immediately, and violently. Oil tariffs jumped.


It does not matter so much whether Tehran examined the idea by means of its being flown in the air or adopted it in the wake of the effective response of the markets. What does matter is that within a short time, the Islamic Republic embraced a new approach to handling the nuclear crisis. A quote of one parliamentarian has turned into a mantra, perhaps, a strategy: on December 27, the vice president Rahimi said that "If sanctions are adopted against Iranian oil, not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz." On December 28, Iran’s Navy chief has informed that "Iran has total control over the strategic water way…Closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy [for Iranian naval forces]."  

Many events are taking place simultaneously. The sanctions employed by the U.S. and European Union let out the blood of Iran’s economy: the Iranian currency has weakened over the past months by 40 percent; long queues are stretching in the banks, people are withdrawing their money. The true unemployment, behind the lies of the regime, stands at 20 percent at least; the prices in the country are steadily soaring, and the currency un use is the American dollar, ironically enough. 


Yesterday, in another act of panic, the government prohibited the use of foreign currencies throughout Iran. In concert, international institutions and companies are severing their ties with their Iranian counterparts, public and private.

The Americans are acting with unprecedented energy and thoroughness. They assigned the Treasury Secretary Geithner to Japan and a special envoy to South Korea, going through country after country in order to strangle the Iranians. They have success. The fear of getting on the American black list produces an effective trade ban on the Iranians.



The Americans Have Grown Anxious



The regime feels the suffocation, and alongside, it experiences the campaign of sabotage and assassinations that undermines the fundamental sense of security in the Republic. At the same time, the assessments go on increasingly fearing a possible Israeli attack or the strengthening of the sanctions. This rapid deterioration is [developing] even before the Europeans are to gather next week in order to solemnly announce the oil embargo. Since the Islamic revolution, Iran has not been more isolated, and the regime has not been under such a grave threat. The game now is about the highest stakes.


The idea of shutting the Hormuz Strait initially emerged a few weeks ago. The concept was simple: should Iran be unable to sell oil – no one will get oil. If Iran is not allowed to sell, it’ll dispatch its fleet and prevent the sale of oil of the Gulf Emirates, its arch rivals. This would mean economic hysteria: insane skyrocketing in oil prices and global economic stagnation. Except for the nuclear bomb, this is apparently the greatest peril that Iran may pose to world peace.


In a certain sense, it is a brilliant trick. The constant equation - stopping the nuclear development or [facing] sanctions - has been broken: now, we’ve got sanctions versus the disruption of the Strait of HormuzIran is ready for any scenario including sanctions on its oil and it will use its own ways to confront the threats,” Iranian parliament speaker Larjiani calmly noted yesterday.

Suddenly, he became Ehud Barak. 


The American feedback was fast: the 5th Fleet gave notice, in a remarkable manner, that it “won’t tolerate” any disruption of sea navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. On January 2, the Iranian Navy launched an extensive drill in the Persian Gulf and the Straits, while Hossein Salami, a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, treated the American warnings dismissively. This epidemic of intimidations was gradually escalating – and so it does, in practice, during the recent days. 

Just yesterday, three high-ranking Iranian officials have given their piece of mind on the subject of the Hormuz Strait closure. “Iran would use any tools to defend its national interests,” remarked military adviser to the Supreme Leader. Last weekend, Hillary Clinton loudly declared a blockade of the straits to be a “red line,” and Friday, the British Prime Minister made it plain that “the whole world would come together” and won’t let them stay closed. In the middle of the past week, the United States sent a letter to the Iranians, and primarily, to the Spiritual Leader Khamenei.

To clarify the degree of its urgency and make sure that it was received, it was mailed via three channels: through the U.N., through the president of Iraq and through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran that represents the American interests. The letter, in all likelihood, was ultimately threatening, making it clear to the Iranians that Obama’s intention is not to be mistaken. Should the strait be shut down – [there’ll be] a war.



The Americans Don’t Get Whether the Iranians Get Them



The Americans are very eager to explain this over and over to the Iranians. Even if they need to deliver three letters with three messengers and parade time and again Panetta and Clinton in front of the media. The reason is simple and very frightening. The Americans do not understand whether the Iranians understand them. The key words here are “credible threat.”


It is unclear to the West whether the Iranians might indeed block the strait or are merely blustering. To Iran, it is unclear whether America is serious. In fact, we have no clue what is clear to them and what is not. This is how, exactly, miscalculation is created. This is how unexpected escalation is begot. A misinterpretation leading to a backlash followed by further escalating, and finally – a war.


Inside of this loaded space, suddenly barged the liquidation in Tehran and the perpetual concern about the Israeli strike uncoordinated with Washington. The Americans, judging by their reactions, got stressed. They did something extremely rare: elucidated to the Iranians that it’s not them – the hitmen in Tehran. American Secretary of Defense even admonished. “The United States was not involved in that kind of effort. That’s not what the United States does,” he issued reproachfully. In parallel, the joint exercise for Israel and the United States was cancelled, and the level of security of the U.S. army bases in the Persian Gulf has been raised.


Obama had a conversation with Netanyahu, and messages have been put through, designated for the Iranian ears as well, according to which the White House is not interested in a unilateral assault by the Israeli Air Force. Usually, this is where there comes a reassuring, encouraging passage: the messages have been taken in, the tension has abated. You can’t write down this part for that hasn’t happened yet. But, there’s a new elephant in the room, and it’s called the Strait of Hormuz. It disturbs the planet at the moment no less, and probably, more than the Iranian bomb. Maybe, actually, not an elephant. A goat. An Iranian goat.


The author is the foreign news editor of the [Israeli] Channel 10



Original Hebrew article: