Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and to restore sanctions on Iran, senior Iranian officials have been making an unusual series of distinct threats, accompanied by a media campaign on state-run channels.
- The exaggerated Iranian response to U.S. moves is also intended for domestic consumption, part of efforts by the regime to place responsibility for the country’s domestic situation upon “a foreign conspiracy” in order to unite the people around the flag, while deflecting criticism of the regime.
- After the U.S. announced that it would ask Iran’s oil consumers to completely halt purchases of Iranian crude oil, starting in November, Tehran threatened to stop the traffic of oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. However, Tehran would be the party most seriously damaged by such a move since it is almost completely dependent upon the Strait of Hormuz for exporting its oil.
- On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have alternative pipelines and ports on the Red Sea (Yanbu) and in Fujairah, which bypass the Strait, through which they can continue to export large quantities of oil, even when traffic in Hormuz is interrupted.
- The case of the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb is different. There, the Houthis can act on Iran’s behalf, as demonstrated by their attack on Saudi oil tankers in July. Iran also has the capability of instigating various proxies to act (with an emphasis on Shiite militias), with a high level of denial, in various areas of the Middle East where U.S. military forces are present.
- The probability of Iran promoting proxy Shiite militia attacks against vessels in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb or U.S. forces and interests in the region is expected to increase as American pressures intensify.
A wave of threats from senior Iranian officials during the summer of 2018 has opened a window into the crisis in which the regime in Tehran finds itself, as well as its objectives and some of its considerations regarding strategy and deterrence.
These Iranian threats reflect increasing concern within the regime regarding the connection between growing U.S. pressure, especially since the United States decided to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and restore sanctions, and internal, domestic discontent. The regime’s tension is expressed through combative rhetoric, resentment, and hypersensitivity to messages from Washington.
Iranian warnings have been directed abroad at the United States, the Europeans and OPEC members. Nonetheless, they are also intended for internal consumption, to rally the public. They are part of efforts by the regime and its various components to deal with the economic crisis and ongoing unrest in Iran.
Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz serve immediate objectives, but they appear to be hollow because Tehran is the player that would be the most seriously damaged by their execution. They could even cause Iran to be drawn into a direct military conflict with the United States, which Iran is trying to avoid. Despite the caution that Iran has demonstrated in this regard, the tension that its threats are creating could lead to a miscalculation or to an unplanned escalation of localized incidents in the waters of the Gulf.
It seems that Iran is not too bothered that its threats over the Strait of Hormuz may be seen as empty. Just as in other cases, it places much value on promoting harsh rhetoric as it is looking after its short-term interests, even though its threats are not realistic and are at the expense of its credibility.
As opposed to its desire to avoid the consequences of direct action against the United States, Iran has demonstrated it is willing to trigger proxies against U.S. allies in the Gulf and the traffic of oil tankers in the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb. Moreover, if the regime feels its stability is jeopardized by American pressure, it might be inclined to generate concentrated efforts to support Shiite militias’ terror attacks against U.S. forces and interests in the region.
The U.S. Administration should seek to utilize the strategy of “maximum pressure” to the fullest in order to increase the currently slim chance of pushing Tehran to agree to return to negotiations over an improved nuclear agreement, and to ensure that Tehran does not break through the restraint of the pressure upon it. Therefore, the U.S. administration should, on the one hand:
- Increase pressure upon the importers of Iranian oil to reduce their purchases and upon the members of OPEC to increase their production;
- Enhance the level of U.S. military presence and strategic clarity in the straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb.
- Act upon recent declarations warning Iran it will be held responsible for hostile actions of the Houthis in Bab el-Mandeb Strait and for proxy attacks against American interests and forces in the region. The United States must be prepared to exact a price from Tehran for any such action. The right model in this respect is the American strikes in the al-Tanf area and east Syria since 2017 when American forces were threatened with attack by pro-regime forces.
- On the other hand, the administration should continue to reassure Tehran that “regime change” is not an objective the United States is pursuing. The administration should also keep open tactical (naval) and diplomatic channels to Iran to avoid any miscalculation or entanglement of tactical incidents on the ground.
A Wave of Iranian Threats in Response to Messages from the United States
During the summer that followed the U.S. administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and to restore sanctions on Iran, senior Iranian officials have been making an unusual series of distinct threats. At least some of the threats were coordinated in advance, and most were a direct response to U.S. statements and measures. The threats of these officials were accompanied by a media campaign on state-run channels in Iran and were supported publicly by mid-level echelons in the Iranian military and political establishment.
American Statements and Warnings, and the Main Responses from Iran (In Chronological Order)
United States – On June 18, 2018, the U.S. government announced that it would ask Iran’s oil consumers to completely halt their purchases of Iranian crude oil, starting in November, or they would risk exposure to U.S. sanctions.1
Iran – In response, Tehran threatened to stop the traffic of oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. President Hassan Rouhani was the first to hint to this on July 3 and 4, 2018, when he made a veiled threat2 that Iran would not be “the only oil producer unable to export its oil,” and that the Trump administration “has not thought about the ramifications of this action.” The commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, praised Rouhani’s statements and emphasized that he is prepared to execute them if ordered to.3 In the end, to remove all doubt, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Ben. Ali Jafari, declared4 that “either all can use the Strait of Hormuz, or no one.”
In response to the Iranian threats, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)5 clarified that it was prepared to take action to ensure the freedom of shipping in the straits in accordance with international law.
Several weeks later, the rhetoric between both countries intensified.
United States – An animated discussion took place in Washington regarding the promotion of democracy and a change of the Iranian regime6 before an address by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to a group of Americans of Iranian origin in Los Angeles.
Iran – On July 21, 2018, Rouhani warned7 President Trump, “don’t play with the lion’s tail,” and that, “America should know that … war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” He also cautioned Trump, “You are not in a position to incite the Iranian nation against Iran’s security and interests.”
Additionally, Rouhani explained, “Iran is in a dominant position in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz… and we have been the guarantor of the regional waterway’s security throughout history.”
United States – The following day, June 22, 2018, President Trump tweeted:8 “To Iranian President Rouhani: Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. …Be cautious!”
Iran – On July 25, 2018, in a speech broadcast on state media channels in Iran,9 Soleimani responded directly and defiantly to President Trump. He expressed his surprise that the United States dared to threaten a power like Iran after its military failure in a poor country like Afghanistan and in Iraq. He warned, “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine. We are the nation of martyrdom; we are the nation of Imam Hossein. Come, we are ready. We are the man of this arena. You know that this war would mean annihilation of all your means. You may begin the war, but it is us who will end it… are you aware of our power in the region and capability for [launching] asymmetrical war?”
Soleimani emphasized that also in Yemen, the United States (which is arming Saudi Arabia) could not manage to deal with “a mere organization (the Houthis),” in spite of its military might. He claimed that its actions have undermined the security of the Red Sea and exposed Saudi Arabia to missile strikes.
Furthermore, Soleimani explained that U.S. support for a “terror organization,” the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, had failed, and it would not be able to shake the inner stability of Iran.
On the same day, the Houthis attacked two Saudi oil tankers in the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb, apparently with C-802 anti-ship missiles. After the attack, the Saudis temporarily halted the movement of oil tankers in the straits. Later, on August 7, 2018, a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guard10 was quoted as admitting that Iran instructed the Houthis to fire on the oil tankers. The Fars news agency, which initially quoted the officer and the spokesman of the Revolutionary Guard, hurried to deny the report and remove it from the agency’s site.
At the beginning of August, the Revolutionary Guard navy launched a naval exercise in the waters of the Persian Gulf that appeared to reinforce Iran’s public threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. At the same time, unusually, and in spite of the exercise being identified by CENTCOM, Iran did not officially confirm its existence until it was finished, and it did not receive any media coverage.11
United States – On July 30, 2018, President Trump slightly eased the tension when he announced that he was prepared to meet with Rouhani. Later on, National Security advisor John Bolton explained that the objective of the United States was not to bring about a regime change in Iran, but only a significant change in its policies.12
Why Is Iran Making Threats, and What Is the Purpose of Its Messages?
The threat to stop traffic in the Strait of Hormuz (which handles around 30 percent of the world’s naval transportation of oil and gas) and the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb (around 8 percent) is directed at the main buyers of Iranian oil, and particularly toward European countries, Turkey, China, and India. It is intended to discourage them from cooperating with the U.S. administration’s demand to stop purchasing Iranian oil and to encourage them to stand against U.S. sanctions in order to avoid a serious glitch in the world energy market.
This message is also directed toward the members of OPEC, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Tehran is demanding that they do not increase production to compensate for the shortage that may be created as a result of diminished Iranian oil exports. In August 2018, Iran warned13 that according to the rules of the organization, no member is allowed to increase its amount of exports at the expense of a decline in the quotas of another member.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, in response to American pressure, recently announced it intends to raise output from 10.7 million barrels per day (BPD) to 11 million, and added it could increase production up to 12 million BPD if need be.14
In addition to the growing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia at OPEC, it seems that Iran hopes that saber-rattling rhetoric over the transportation of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the actions of the Houthis in Bab el-Mandeb will increase tension in the region, leading to a rise in oil prices that will offset the losses to the Iranian economy that are expected as a result of a decrease in oil exports. It should be remembered in this context that in the past, Iran’s threats to obstruct the passage of oil tankers and its tensions with the United States in the Strait of Hormuz caused localized increases in oil prices.15
Vis-a-vis the United States, the Rouhani and Soleimani messages had a dual purpose: to warn the administration not to exploit Iran’s weakness to declare war, and to dissuade the Americans from encouraging efforts to change the regime. Soleimani was more specific when he also explained the price that the United States would have to pay for war: sinking into the Iranian morass, asymmetrical warfare, casualties as a result of attacks against U.S. forces in the region (“We are near you, where you can’t even imagine”), and attacks against America’s allies, such as Saudi Arabia, which has already sustained missile strikes.
At the same time, while these warnings are directed abroad, they are also intended for domestic consumption and are combined with the efforts of the regime to deal with continuing unrest in Iran. Since the end of 2017, the regime has been facing protests and demonstrations. These are sporadic but stubborn and encompass many sectors in Iran. They center on calls against the religious leadership, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and against the Rouhani government, with demands to take care of the problems of the economy, reduce corruption, and focus on urgent domestic needs instead of foreign intrigues in the region and adventures across the sea. The demonstrations are fueled by a serious economic crisis, focusing on galloping inflation, the crash of the rial, the rising cost of basic products, unemployment, and social problems.
The reference of Iranian senior officials to potential war with the United States seems to be an exaggerated response to Trump’s warnings, and Rouhani alluded to war even before Trump’s Tweet. However, it is commensurate with efforts by the regime on different levels (the government, conservatives) to place responsibility for the country’s domestic situation upon “a foreign conspiracy.” Intimidating the public with an American threat of an all-out war against Iran is intended to unite the people around the flag, while deflecting criticism of the regime.
Furthermore, the public and conservatives in Iran attacked Rouhani following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the worsening economic situation. Rouhani, who had promised economic improvement following the nuclear deal, was forced into a defensive position. Therefore, it is not surprising that he was the one who has been leading the threatening rhetoric. Soleimani and senior officials of the Revolutionary Guard followed this line to show a united front among the ranks of the regime against the threat. The regime’s attempt to present this united front did not last long when, facing the worsening crisis of rial value, Khamenei diverted the fire and threw the blame upon Rouhani,16 claiming that he “crossed red lines” when he compromised during the nuclear deal negotiations.
What Is the Probability of Iran Carrying Out Its Threats?
It is not the first time that Iran has threatened to use oil as a weapon and obstruct traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. Similar threats have been issued by senior Iranian officials since the 1980s, including during the past decade, on several occasions: in 2011-201217 (accompanied by extensive naval maneuvers in the Gulf) and in 2016.18
Since the direct conflict in the Gulf between Iran and the United States in the “Tanker War” (1987-1988) during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has never carried out its threats, following severe warnings from the United States. Nevertheless, over the years it has developed and refined its military capabilities for seriously hindering traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.19
The navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, such as land-to-sea cruise missiles deployed along the length of the shores of the straits and the nearby islands, a large arsenal of thousands of naval mines, destroyers armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, hundreds of speedboats, and unmanned naval vessels that can be employed in “swarms,” midget submarines, naval UAVs, and more. Iran would not need to activate all these capabilities if it decided to act, because a direct hit on even a small number of loaded tankers would cause environmental damage and a rise in insurance rates, which would hinder traffic.
Despite its capabilities for seriously upsetting passage through the Strait of Hormuz and a range of possible scenarios for activating them, Iran has too much to lose from actually putting this process into motion, from the military, economic, and political point of view, especially in terms of current circumstances and the incumbent U.S. president, who is perceived as unpredictable.
Experience over the past few decades has taught that Iran is cognizant of U.S. military dominance in the Gulf, understands that freedom of shipping in the Strait of Hormuz is an essential U.S. interest that the American government is prepared to fight for, and it therefore seeks to avoid direct military conflict with U.S. forces. Such a battle and the toll it would take goes against the modus operandi of Iran, which always prefers action and the creation of leverage for deterrence and influence through proxies in an indirect manner, giving it plausible deniability.
From the economic point of view, closing the Strait of Hormuz is a double-edged sword for Iran. In the absence of alternative export routes, Iran is almost completely dependent upon the Strait of Hormuz for exporting its oil, which makes up around 80 percent of its export revenues and 50 to 60 percent of the Tehran government’s income.20 On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have alternative pipelines and ports on the Red Sea (Yanbu) and in Fujairah, which bypass the Strait, through which they can continue to export large quantities of oil, even when traffic in Hormuz is interrupted.
Additionally, politically, Iran will think twice before taking a step such as closing the Strait of Hormuz, which could seriously damage the interests of the P4+1 countries and stymie Tehran’s efforts to rally them to stand against U.S. sanctions, to provide assurances to international companies to be able to operate in Iran, ensure its ability to continue exporting oil, and maintain access to international banking and financial systems.
Under these circumstances, the chance that Iran will use military strength to shut down the Strait of Hormuz is low, even if its oil exports are harmed significantly as a result of the sanctions. According to forecasts,22 exports will not fall to zero in the foreseeable future, due to the current positions of China, Turkey, Europe, and to a certain extent, India.
At the same time, the growing pressure of the Iranian regime and its threatening rhetoric is increasing the danger of mistakes and miscalculations in the straits, including attempts to disrupt traffic without any fingerprints (by the use of mines), independent moves by Iranian naval forces, which could over-interpret the public threats of their leaders, or Iranian failure to control its forces and proxies in an escalation of localized episodes of friction.
In this regard, the caution that Tehran has demonstrated during the exercise that it launched in the Gulf at the beginning of August, which was intended to validate its threats, can be understood. Iran did not publicly admit the exercise’s existence and has refrained from discussing it in the media to ensure that it will not create unplanned, unwanted friction with U.S. forces in the Gulf, and not only because of possible domestic criticism over dangerous provocations, as various commentators have assessed.23 It is likely that similar considerations are partly connected to a sharp drop, over the passing year, in the number of harassment events24 Iran has caused in the Gulf (such as getting dangerously close to international vessels).
The case of the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb is different. While Iran does not have any available proxies in the area of the Strait of Hormuz that it can activate, and any military action would be immediately associated with it, in Bab el-Mandeb, as demonstrated by their attack on Saudi oil tankers in July, the Houthis can act on Iran’s behalf using its capabilities to project power and threaten traffic in the straits.
Iran also has the capability of instigating various proxies to act (with an emphasis on Shiite militias), with a high level of denial, in various areas of the Middle East where U.S. military forces are present. In the previous decade, Iran has displayed its high potential to cause damage by providing know-how and means, especially in the field of roadside bombs and IEDs, to local forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to many casualties among U.S. forces.
It would seem that Soleimani’s threats reflect awareness of the deterrent that Iran has created for the United States over the years in such contexts and of strong U.S. sensitivity to the security of its forces in the region. Furthermore, the United States itself occasionally shows signs of weakness in this regard, which has been picked up in Tehran. An example of this was when, in an apparent move to prevent revenge attacks against U.S. forces, American sources revealed in the media on several occasions25 that strikes in Syria were carried out by Israel and not by the United States.
The probability of Iran promoting proxy Shiite militias attacks against vessels in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb or U.S. forces and interests in the region (such as the U.S. consulate in Basra, attacked in September 2018) is expected to increase as American pressures intensify, and Tehran feels more threatened by external actions that it may interpret as efforts aimed to accelerate regime change.
Conclusion and Policy Recommendations
Iran’s threats reflect increasing anxiety among the ranks of the regime in Tehran over the connection with growing U.S. pressure, especially since the United States decided to abandon the nuclear agreement and restore sanctions, and internal domestic unrest.
While the emphasis on the price that the United States would pay in a war is meant to push off such a development and is more likely intended primarily for home consumption, Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz serve, within themselves, immediate objectives. Yet they appear to be hollow.
It would seem that Iran is not bothered that its threats over the Strait of Hormuz may be seen as empty. Just as in other cases, it places much value on promoting harsh rhetoric as it is looking after its short-term interests, even though its threats are not realistic and are at the expense of its credibility.
As opposed to its desire to avoid the consequences of direct action against the United States, Iran has demonstrated it is willing to activate proxies against U.S. allies in the Gulf and the traffic of oil tankers in the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb. Moreover, if the regime feels its stability is risked by American pressure, it could be inclined to generate concentrated efforts to support Shiite militias’ terror attacks against U.S. forces and interests in the region.
The clear tension of the regime in Tehran, which is reflected by its fiery rhetoric, anger, its hypersensitivity to messages from Washington, and the sensitivity of the Iranian economy to sanctions, is among other things a result of the Trump administration’s strategy of maximum pressure, making an easy basis for it to progress.
To utilize this strategy to the fullest to increase the currently slim chance of pushing Tehran to agree to return to negotiations over an improved nuclear agreement, and to ensure that Tehran will not break through the restraint of the pressure upon it by changing the diplomatic context into a military one, the U.S. administration should on the one hand:
- Maintain and even increase pressure on the importers of Iranian oil in order to move toward the target of zero Iranian exports as soon as possible;
- Make sure that the Arab members of OPEC, and Saudi Arabia in particular, increase production and export quotas to cover the deficits in the market and keep oil prices low in spite of the decrease in Iranian exports;
- Significantly increase the level of its military presence in the straits and give Iran a clear strategic impression that the United States has zero tolerance for and will thwart any attempt to disturb the freedom of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz;
- Act upon recent declarations, warning Iran it will be held responsible for hostile actions of the Houthis in the Bab el-Mandeb Straits and for proxy attacks against American interests and forces in the region, and exact a price from Iran for any such action. The right model in this respect is the American strikes in the al-Tanf area and east Syria since 2017 when American forces were threatened with attack by pro-regime forces.26
On the other hand, the U.S. administration should also:
- Reassure Iran that the United States has no intention of acting to change the regime (as National Security Advisor John Bolton stated during his visit to Israel). If Iran estimates that the United States is attempting to promote this objective, it is likely to reject any diplomatic dialogue and will be more inclined to seek to incite proxies against U.S. forces in the region.
- Keep open the channels of tactical (naval) and diplomatic communication to Iran to prevent miscalculations or complications caused by friction in the Gulf.
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25. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/18/politics/israel-us-strike-syria/index.html; https://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/US-officials-We-knew-about-the-forthcoming-Israeli-strike-in-Syria-549256; https://www.wsj.com/articles/as-israel-targets-iran-in-syria-u-s-officials-warn-of-reprisals-1540728001