Chest thumping inthe Strait of Hormuz

The belligerent talk by the Iranian government about closing the Strait of Hormuz is a sign of that country’s desperation.

New U.S. sanctions that were enacted on New Year’s Eve, targeting Iran’s financial sector, coupled with a European Union embargo on Iranian oil that was announced Wednesday, are having a real bite.

The Iranians are reportedly having a difficult time finding new customers for their oil and are facing serious revenue problems as a result.

This, just two months before the nation’s parliamentary elections. Those elections are tightly controlled by the nation’s ruling clerics and not truly free. Nevertheless, there are hints of a split between the conservatives and reformists in the ruling group.

The sanctions by the United States and Europe, of course, are aimed at preventing Iran from proceeding with the development of nuclear weapons, something it denies it is doing, even as it brags about having missiles that can reach Israel.

The chest-thumping over the Strait of Hormuz is seen by many people as a distraction, an attempt to persuade foreigners and Iranian citizens that the government won’t be cowed by the sanctions, and will retaliate by cutting off other supplies of crude that go through the Strait.

Foreign policy experts say there is little likelihood of Iran actually attempting to close the strait. They note that Iran briefly attempted to close the Strait of Hormuz in the 1980s, during its war with Iraq.

The United States responded with warships and aircraft that kept the strait open. The brief conflict cost Iran dearly in terms of naval vessels sunk, oil platforms destroyed and military personnel killed.

Still, no one should belittle the possibility of the Iranian mullahs — and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said he is eager for some cataclysmic event with the West — acting irrationally and provoking another military confrontation with the United States.

Nor can we ignore the threat posed by Iran possessing nuclear weapons in one of the most unstable regions on Earth. President Ahmadinejad has talked of wanting to see Israel eliminated, and Iran is already doing all that it can to destabilize Iraq.

It would be far more problematic to prevent an Iranian government armed with nuclear weapons from closing the Strait of Hormuz.

So far, the response from the Obama administration and the Europeans has been solid: Keep the sanctions in place. Make it clear U.S. Navy ships, with appropriate reinforcements, will continue to sail through the strait. And don’t back down because some very worried Iranian leaders are ratcheting up the rhetoric.


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