In light of the internal crisis in Iran created by chronic financial mismanagement and pending U.S. sanctions, the internal tension between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani intensified. However, it appears that Rouhani recently adopted the radical line of the Revolutionary Guards, among other things, to preserve his shaky position as president.
“The Americans claim that they want to break off the bridges connecting Iran with the world, but they will never reach that goal,” Rouhani said on July 3, 2018, in Vienna, Austria. “They are not the world’s absolute power.”1
On July 4, 2018, Rouhani declared, “The Americans say they want to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero… It shows they have not thought about its consequences.”2
“It would be meaningless that Iran cannot export its oil while others in the region can,” Rouhani was cited in other sources. “Do this if you can and see the consequences.”3
He did not clarify what the consequences would be.
A senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Ismail Kowsari, was explicit about the results: “If they want to stop Iranian oil exports,” he warned, “we will not allow any oil shipment to pass through the Strait of Hormuz.”4
Hardliners Were Seen as Opponents to Rouhani
President Rouhani received strong support from the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, who is a tough political opponent and a potential challenger for the presidency. General Qassem Suleimani sent a warm message to President Rouhani, in which he praised Rouhani’s position as “valuable and powerful.” In the letter, Suleimani called Rouhani “a dear brother” and “I kiss your (Rouhani’s) hand for expressing such wise and timely comments, and I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic.” With a slightly patronizing attitude, he wrote, “This is the same Rouhani that we used to know, we have the same Rouhani that should be” and noted that the words of Rouhani “filled with pride our dear Leader Imam Ali Khamenei.”5
The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the chief IRGC commander, also warned on July 5, 2018, that it could block the Hormuz Strait if the United States prevents its oil exports, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported. “Iran’s enemies must understand that the Strait of Hormuz is either for everyone or not for anyone.”6
The threats of President Rouhani and the commanders of the Quds Force mean more than just a risk to harm oil exports from the Persian Gulf; they could mean the closing of the Strait of Hormuz and undermining the freedom of navigation through the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb where Iran’s Houthi proxies have already fired missiles at ships and tankers.
The threats could also translate into terrorist operations by Iranian-backed terrorist organizations such as Hizbullah, whose forces are deployed in Yemen and Syria.
Iran’s closing of these naval chokepoints has precedent. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq began attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in 1981. But quickly Iran copied the attacks, matching and even overtaking the Iraq naval attacks by 1987 with scores of assaults. Iran not only struck Iraqi oil trade, but also the oil exports of Arab Gulf states that were allied with Iraq, like Kuwait. In short, Rouhani and Suleimani were invoking an Iranian strategy that was used in the past and undoubtedly has become more sopisticated.7
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