As the war of words between the US and Iran ramps up, President Hassan Rouhani’s foolhardy threats to close the Strait of Hormuz risks a dangerous escalation of the crisis.
The Strait of Hormuz lies between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, providing the only sea passage for crude oil from many of the world’s largest oil producers — including Opec’s top five exporters inside the Gulf, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq and the UAE — to the Indian Ocean. Around one third of the world’s sea-borne petroleum and nearly all of the liquefied gas from Qatar, the leading global gas exporter, passes through this constricted choke-point, which is only 34km (21 miles) wide at its narrowest point.
But following President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon Barack Obama’s flawed nuclear deal with Iran and to reimpose strict sanctions, Rouhani warned the US last week that it could shut down international oil shipments in the strategic strait if Washington continued to provoke Tehran. “We have always guaranteed the security of this strait,” Rouhani told diplomats in the Iranian capital.
Openly bragging about Iranian meddling in neighbouring countries, the ‘moderate’ Rouhani added: “Iran’s strategic depth is from the east to the [Indian] subcontinent, from the west to the Mediterranean, from the south to the Red Sea and from the north to the Caucasus.” He warned the US: “Do not play with the lion’s tail; you will regret it forever.” There is a famous Italian proverb that says “every dog is a lion at home” and there is little doubt that Rouhani’s frenzied barking is a vain attempt to impress his domestic audience. But the US administration is unlikely to be worried by the yelps of a Persian poodle like Rouhani.
Nevertheless, General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a listed terrorist organisation in the West, sent a message to Rouhani telling him: “I kiss your hands for these wise statements and I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic.” He added: “Hormuz is either for everyone or for no one.” In an unusual step, Beijing reproached Tehran for its use of intemperate language over its threats to close the strait. But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a speech in California at the weekend, said the Iranian regime’s leadership “resembles the mafia more than a government”, pointing to the Ayatollahs’ venal corruption and obsession with personal enrichment rather than religion, together with their aggressive expansionism in the Middle East. Pompeo said: “Regime leaders – especially those at the top of the IRGC and the Quds Force like Qasem Soleimani – must be made to feel painful consequences of their bad decision-making.”
Urging all countries to reduce their imports of Iranian oil as close to zero as possible by 4 November as part of Washington’s efforts to ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian regime, Pompeo said: “We are asking every nation, every nation who is sick and tired of the Islamic Republic’s destructive behaviour to join our pressure campaign. This especially goes for our allies in the Middle East and Europe, people who have themselves been terrorised by the violent regime’s activity for decades.” Pompeo said that the US is not afraid to tackle Iranian officials at the highest levels of the regime with renewed sanctions unless Iran agrees to a list of 12 new demands, including an end to its aggressive meddling in Middle East conflict zones and an end to its development of ballistic missiles.
The mullahs are now deeply perplexed. A state of total confusion has persisted ever since Trump tore up the nuclear deal. Attempts to bully the EU into filling the financial void created by renewed US sanctions are doomed to fail, as European companies realise that they would lose $1,000 in American business for every $1 dollar they earn in contracts with the Iranian regime. Horrified at the thought of conceding to US demands, the theocratic regime has resorted to issuing threats, in the hope that their bellicose rhetoric will deflect attention from their collapsing economy and ongoing mass protests that have rocked the country for more than seven months. With their finances drained by corruption and by the cost of funding proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, the mullahs know that their medieval theocracy is facing its final curtain. Their public beating and humiliation in Syria by the Israelis may prove to be the last straw.
Pompeo is convinced that the new sanctions will cripple the regime and lead to the overthrow of the mullahs. On 4 August, American sanctions on whoever sells gold and food to Iran will come into effect. Three months later, at the beginning of November, the American siege on Iranian oil begins. The 80 million citizens of Iran, sick to death of the regime’s brutality and corruption, are demanding regime change. Their daily protests are increasing in fury and intensity.
The mullahs have blamed the main democratic opposition movement – the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI or MEK) and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) led by Maryam Rajavi, for fomenting the unrest in Iran. After years of dismissing the PMOI as an insignificant irritant, they are now terrified of Mrs Rajavi and her pledge to restore peace, freedom and democracy to Iran’s 80 million beleaguered citizens. The mullahs are now snarling like wild, cornered beasts. Clearly the Iranian lion has been wounded and the American boot on its tail may turn out to be the least of its worries.
• Struan Stevenson is a former Conservative MEP and Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change (CIC)