Iranian Threats Reflect Intensifying Confrontation over Its Nuclear Program

James Phillips /

Iran’s Islamist dictatorship has escalated its bellicose rhetoric in recent days, boasting about its ability to disrupt oil exports from the Persian Gulf and warning that U.S. Navy warships (particularly the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which recently exited the gulf) could be attacked in the future.

Iran has often exploited its frequent military exercises to demonstrate its willingness and capability to disrupt oil shipping if it is threatened. This advances the regime’s interests by intimidating nearby Arab oil-exporting states, enhancing its deterrence of perceived enemies, and driving up the price of oil, its principal export, in the nervous world oil market.

But Iran’s most recent threats reflect the intensifying war of nerves spawned by Tehran’s defiance on the nuclear issue. They are an extension of Tehran’s propaganda campaign to convince the rest of the world that Iran’s nuclear progress is unstoppable and that any attempt to roll it back through sanctions or military action would entail a high cost in terms of skyrocketing oil prices.

The regime is counting on such threats to dissuade Europeans from ratcheting up sanctions against Iran’s oil exports at the January 30 EU summit and to deter Israel or the United States from launching a preventive attack against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

But Iran has no real interest in actually closing the straits so long as its own oil continues to flow, because it would be one of the biggest losers. Almost all of its oil exports need to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, while Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait have access to oil pipelines that bypass that chokepoint. The United Arab Emirates soon will finish a pipeline that will allow it to export its oil through a port on the Arabian Sea.

Iran making good on its threat would also result in a military clash with the U.S. that would threaten its own economy and perhaps the survival of the regime. Moreover, the U.S. and its European allies have reduced their dependence on Persian Gulf oil, most of which flows to Asian markets—especially China, one of Iran’s few allies. To the extent that Iran succeeded in blocking the strait for more than a few days, it would pose a greater threat to China’s energy security than that of the U.S., which could mitigate oil supply shortfalls by releasing oil from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The Obama Administration has played down Iran’s threats, but at the same time it has claimed that those threats are a sign that Tehran is finally feeling the bite of sanctions and that its Iran policy is working. But the goal of sanctions is to stop Iran’s nuclear program, not to make a dangerous regime even more bellicose. And Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance, as the most recent IAEA report documented, despite the Administration’s complacent claims.

It is true that Iran’s economy has been hit hard in recent days by a run on Iran’s banks and the plummeting value of its currency, which has reportedly fallen by 40 percent over the last month. These adverse trends have undoubtedly been exacerbated by congressional authorization of U.S. sanctions against Iran’s central bank and the prospect of further EU sanctions against Iran’s oil industry.

But the Obama Administration actually opposed the imposition of sanctions against foreign firms that do business with Iran’s central bank and deserves little of the credit for those sanctions. In fact, Senator Mark Kirk (R–IL), one of the primary authors of the sanctions legislation, questioned the President’s commitment to implement the sanctions on Tuesday and warned that “with the Senate voting 100–0 to cripple the Central Bank of Iran, the president’s signing statement hinting he will ignore parts of this law risks overwhelming opposition in the Congress.”

Rather than undermining Congress and diluting the effectiveness of the central bank sanctions, the Obama Administration should focus on undermining the hostile regime in Tehran. Instead of playing down the Iranian threats, top Administration officials should publicly make it clear that the U.S. will act decisively, in conjunction with NATO and Gulf Cooperation Council allies, to protect Persian Gulf oil exports from Iranian threats of disruption.

The Heritage Foundation released a study in 2006, “Countering Iran’s Oil Weapon,” which made the following recommendation, among others:

The U.S. Navy should maintain a formidable presence in the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian troublemaking and reassure jittery Gulf allies. Washington should also encourage its NATO allies, Japan, India, and Australia to deploy their naval forces periodically to the region. The Pentagon should frequently conduct naval, air, and ground exercises with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates- particularly in the areas of minesweeping, port security, and missile defense-to demonstrate the capability and resolve to defeat potential Iranian threats.

The Obama Administration should recognize the need for strong words and determined actions to counter Iran’s growing threat to Persian Gulf oil exports. Downplaying Iran’s repeated threats while remaining complacent about its rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program is a risky strategy replete with dangerous consequences for the U.S. and its allies.