x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Iran's threat is dangerous even if improbable

Iran is unlikely to carry out its threat of closing the Straits of Hormuz, but it's rhetoric is self defeating and only serves to inflame hotheads on all sides.

Words can be dangerous by themselves. Iran's threat on Tuesday to close the Strait of Hormuz is almost certainly just that - only words - but it is the sort of ill-conceived bluster that could have unintended consequences.

"If sanctions are adopted against Iranian oil, not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz," said Mohammad Reza Rahimi, a vice president. The sanctions Mr Rahimi was referring to is a possible EU embargo on Iranian oil that will be considered next month.

Threats to block the Strait of Hormuz have long been Tehran's favourite diplomatic cudgel. As the conduit for much of the oil from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, as well as Qatari gas, the strait is vital to the world's energy markets and the Gulf's economic well-being. This is not only a threat against the West, but against the world.

Iran does have the military capability to close the strait - no great feat seeing as it is less than 50 kilometres at its narrowest. The country's arsenal includes surface-to-ship missiles, sea mines and numerous small fast-attack craft. It is enough to block oil tankers from passing through the strait, although that might start a war.

Tehran's leaders are well aware that a war would be a disaster for Iran as much as any other country. As such, these statements are very close to errant nonsense, a poor attempt at brinkmanship that plays well for a domestic audience. It's not the first time that senior Iranian officials have chosen belligerence over common sense: in October, after the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, senior clerics boasted that Iran had the capability to assassinate King Abdullah. Such statements are as foolhardy as they are offensive.

The threat to close the strait cannot be taken at face value, but neither is it harmless posturing. In the high-stakes game in the Middle East, with hawks in Israel and elsewhere eager for strikes against Iran, bellicose rhetoric inflames hotheads on every side. It is indicative of Iran's crisis of leadership that senior politicians will sound off with so little regard for the region's stability and the welfare of their own citizens.

The UAE and other GCC nations must prepare for the worst given this fractious neighbour. Military procurements - and the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline to Fujairah - help to offset the Iranian threat. But that is preparing for the worst-case scenario. Tehran's bluster is now so frequent that it would be a mistake to pay it too much attention.