The United States has issued a stern warning to Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that closing the Strait of Hormuz would provoke an American military response. Previously, Washington – which does not have an embassy in Iran – has relied on Switzerland to communicate with the Iranian leadership, but the Obama administration reportedly used a new secret channel to relay this message in an effort to underscore the seriousness of the situation.
The admonishment comes in response to recent threats from Iran that it would close the waterway – through which a fifth of the world’s oil supply passes – if the West pursued tighter sanctions. Earlier this month, Iranian naval forces conducted drills to practice closing off a major waterway.
Tensions between Iran and the West have steadily escalated in recent weeks, but the economic cost of closing the Strait of Hormuz would likely cripple Iran, making such an action unlikely.
“They would basically be taking a vow of poverty with themselves,” said Dennis Ross, a former Iran adviser for the Obama administration, in The New York Times. “I don’t think they’re in such a mood of self-sacrifice.”
The American warning coincided with the buildup of US forces in the Persian Gulf. As US troops left Iraq at the end of last year, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of the US Central Command, requested additional forces in the region. The scope of the deployment is only now apparent with 15,000 American troops stationed in Kuwait, reports The Los Angeles Times.
The new deployments include two Army infantry brigades and a helicopter unit, a substantial increase in combat power after nearly a decade in which Kuwait chiefly served as a staging area for supplies and personnel heading to Iraq.
The Pentagon also has decided to keep two aircraft carriers and their strike groups in the region.
The Pentagon has acted to reassure Iran and others in the region that the troops are only there to serve as a quick response force in the event of a major incident, not to prepare for a war.
Despite numerous indicators that Iran will not take a step as drastic as closing the Strait of Hormuz, American commanders have expressed concern that a rogue Iranian naval officer could create a dangerous situation and escalate tensions, reports The Atlantic.
James Blitz of the Financial Times outlined such a scenario.
“Given the sheer number of military exercises being conducted by Iran, Israel, and the US in the next few weeks, there is an outside chance that a conflict could accidentally erupt because of some misunderstanding in the Gulf,” writes Mr. Blitz. But while diplomatic relations with Iran have not been this tense since Iran’s nuclear program was first uncovered in 2002, the possibility of a military conflict is still a long way off, he writes. “The big moments of decision in this long-running saga are still at least a year away.”
While agreeing with other analysts that it is unlikely Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz, Bloomberg Businessweek offers an in-depth look at how such a move would affect the international oil market. Bloomberg estimates a doubling of prices to more than $200 a barrel despite a variety of countermeasures that have been floated. Oil merchants could construct a pipeline that bypasses the Strait, but it could only move 7 million of the 17 million barrels that that pass through the strait everyday. The US could close some of the gap by tapping its strategic oil reserves, which holds 700 million barrels, while Saudi Arabia has the capacity to produce an addition 3 million barrels per day.
According to a separate report from Bloomberg, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are traveling to Tehran this month to discuss Iran's nuclear program. While there has been no indication that Iran has changed its position, the meeting could provide an opportunity to ease recent tensions slightly.