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Iran gearing up for major drill threatening to shut Strait of Hormuz

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Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard forces are gearing up to stage a major exercise in the Persian Gulf, perhaps within the next 48 hours that could be aimed at demonstrating their ability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, according to a CNN report citing two US officials “directly familiar with the latest US assessment of IRGC troop movements.” – reported YNews (Israel).

"We are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman. We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways," Captain William Urban, chief spokesman for US Central Command, told CNN.

In March, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to threaten to disrupt oil shipments from neighbouring countries if Washington presses ahead with its goal of forcing all countries to stop buying Iranian oil.

The comments, published on Iran's presidential website and partially repeated at a later news conference in Switzerland, could be open to interpretation. However, when asked whether he intended to make a threat, Rouhani declined to provide a clarification.

Iranian officials in the past have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route, in retaliation for any hostile US action against Iran.

In July, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards said their forces were ready to implement Iran's threat to block the Strait of Hormuz and that if Iran cannot sell its oil under the US pressure, no other regional country will be allowed to.

“We are hopeful that this plan expressed by our president will be implemented if needed ... We will make the enemy understand that either all can use the Strait of Hormuz or no one," Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency at the time.

The strategically critical Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and is crucial to international shipping and particularly for global energy supplies.

Responding to Iranian threats, Defense Secretary James Mattis said at the end of last week that "Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. They've done that previously in years past. They saw the international community put—dozens of nations of the international community put their naval forces in for exercises to clear the straits. Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and—and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world's economy depends on that energy, those energy supplies flowing out of there."

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Iran would have big problems if it attempted to close the Strait of Hormuz, the only passage out of the Persian Gulf and into the Indian Ocean, reported Washington Examiner (US).

But that's exactly what Iranian leaders threatened to do this week. Motivated by U.S. warnings that sanctions will be imposed on any nation that buys Iranian oil exports after Nov. 4, on Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani said that the "[U.S. warning] has no meaning for Iranian oil not to be exported, while the region’s oil is exported." On Thursday, Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Ali Jafari declared that "either everyone or no one can use the Strait of Hormuz."

As I say, this would be a very bad idea for Iran.

Don't get me wrong, with 20-30 percent of global oil exports passing through the narrow strait, Iran's threats cannot be taken lightly. The Islamic Republic has a large stockpile of maritime mines, capable anti-ship missiles, and a sizable navy. On paper, these capabilities would allow the ayatollah's forces to close the strait and stop shipments from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar. Saudi oil exports would have to be relocated to the kingdom's Red Sea ports. If carried out successfully, a strait closure would cause spiking global oil prices, rising gas prices, and deep fear in the financial markets. This screenshot from MarineTraffic.com shows the scale of shipping that passes through the strait (the red square) each day.

Still, Iran's power potential here must be measured against its counterbalance: the U.S. military and its allies. It's a crucial consideration in that the U.S. military’s Central Command, CENTCOM, has a well-developed plan to keep the strait open.

Developed by now-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis when he was commanding CENTCOM between 2010 and 2013, the plan involves employing a rapid multinational effort to prevent Iranian mine-laying and systematically clear any mines already deployed. And it's a very good plan. The multinational focus is designed to deter Iranian escalation against marginal adversaries like France and utilize boutique capabilities such as those of Britain’s Royal Navy mine hunters.

Iran previously assumed that closing the strait would lead Western leaders to negotiate a peace favorable to Iran in fear of rising energy costs at home, but now things have changed. The Pentagon now focuses on creating ever-enlarging safe passages through minefields so that oil tankers can quickly return global supplies to normal levels. And while the Iranian Navy and the Revolutionary Guard Navy (two separate organizations) know they cannot challenge the U.S. in a conventional naval contest, they have developed a fleet of small fast-attack boats to sneak up on larger, slower, and less agile U.S. vessels. Again, however, U.S. tactics mitigate that threat by focusing on destroying the Iranian fleet at long and short range.

Ultimately, Iran is aware that any effort to challenge U.S. mine-removal or countermine activities would result in immediate U.S. escalation. To be sure, the hardliners might desire such an escalation in the hope that it would weaken the more moderate political bloc around Rouhani and isolate the U.S. from its European allies, but the costs of that calculation are severe. My map below shows the Iranian military and missile bases that could be targeted by the U.S. in any conflict.

If those centers started attacking or supporting attacks on U.S. or allied interests, they would be annihilated. In the context of its weak economy, its operations in Syria, and its long-term regional struggle with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the hardliners must consider whether any possible presumed gains in challenging the U.S. would be outweighed by the costs.

That speaks to the central balance of considerations here.

Ultimately, Iran's tactical vulnerability and the broader strategic environment mean that the Strait of Hormuz would be unlikely to remain closed for more than a week if Iran mined it. And for Iran, moderates and hardliners alike, the costs would be catastrophic.

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