Since US economic sanctions were reimposed on Iran early this month, Iran’s government and military leadership has responded with salvos of defiant, aggressive warnings, promises, and predictions. The most recent Iranian saber-rattling has focused on the Strait of Hormuz. First it was President Hassan Rouhani stating that if Iran’s oil exports are threatened by US sanctions, the Middle East’s other exports will be threatened too. This was interpreted to be a thinly veiled threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Now it is the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy making assurances that Iran has control of the strait, and the Persian Gulf. General Alireza Tangsiri’s comments have raised some eyebrows around the world, and prompted a response from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. SecState responded with a tweet on Monday night which clarified the US position and left little room for interpretation: “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not control the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait is an international waterway. The United States will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways.”
The strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz cannot be overemphasized. Saber-rattling, or a subtle reminder of Iran’s willingness to use military power in the area is often enough to give global oil markets a panic attack. Iran’s military is not capable enough to permanently close the strait. It can disrupt commercial traffic for a period of time, however. As Pompeo said, the United States is committed to ensuring the safe flow of commerce in international waterways. If Iran sparks a crisis in the straits, a strong US response will come almost immediately.