It is now more than a decade that the threat of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel or Iran and the United States has been looming. Various US leaders, including American presidents, have frequently maintained that "the military option is also on the table," a statement that Iranians have heard too often and dismiss as a mere hollow threat. The same threats have been voiced by Israeli leaders.
Both Americans and Israelis have also made contrary statements, to the effect that a military operation against Iran would not achieve the main objective of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power state by blocking its nuclear program and in particular its enrichment activity. Thus, opinion has been broadly divided between opponents and supporters of military confrontation against Iran.
The opponents argue that a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites would only strengthen Tehran’s resolve to pursue its nuclear program and enable hardliners in the regime to acquire more power. They also point to legal and international ramifications of such an action. Strictly speaking, Iran has not violated any rules and regulations concerning its nuclear programs. A military strike against Iranian nuclear installations is also bound to be opposed by Russia, China and many other countries. All these elements weaken the impact of a military option being "on the table". Thus the Iranian nuclear controversy has continued while the Islamic regime has pursued its nuclear ambitions.
This was the situation until recently. In the past few weeks, however, new developments have emerged that have radically altered the situation in the Persian Gulf. This time, the threat of a military confrontation in the Gulf has dangerously intensified. While it was Iran’s nuclear program that during the past ten years seemingly always posed a military threat, now the cause appears completely different: whether or not to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Some 15 million barrels of crude oil, more than 20 percent of the world’s oil consumption, pass daily through the 35 km-wide waterway at the mouth of the Arabian Sea. Iran has categorically stated that if an oil embargo imposed by the West prevents it from exporting its oil, it would close the strait to other countries as well. The US and additional western powers have replied to Iran that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that the strait, as an international waterway, remains open to shipping.
It is in this context that the Iranian navy carried out a huge display of force during a weeklong military maneuver in which it fired the country’s latest medium-range missile. That exercise had hardly ended when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard began a similar display of force during a 10-day long maneuver. Both operations were of course at the Strait of Hormuz. One after another, Iranian military leaders declared that closure of the strait was "as simple and straightforward an operation as drinking a glass of water". Similarly, one western leader after another responded to the Iranian threat that they would not allow closure of the strait.
At the moment, there is no serious threat of war over the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and the West. Even if the European Union goes ahead with sanctions against Iranian oil, this would amount to only a 15-20 percent loss of the country’s oil exports. It is very unlikely that Iran would block the strait since it would still be selling at least 80 percent of its oil. However, if the rest of Iran’s oil customers start to follow the West then the situation would become very serious.
Yet for now, such a scenario is very unlikely. China, India, Japan and South Korea together buy about 80 percent of Iran’s oil. None has shown any sign of willingness to embrace the West’s oil sanctions against Iran. In the past, however, the US has always forced other countries to follow its sanctions against Iran. If this time, too, Washington puts pressure on the other countries to do so, then Iran would find it very difficult to sell its oil.
This, then, is when the Iranian threat to close the strait becomes serious. If it fails to sell its oil, Iran is deprived of substantial foreign currency revenues.
Realizing this bleak prospect, the Israelis have kept silent lately about carrying out a unilateral military strike against Iran. Interestingly enough, an Israeli intelligence chief stated recently that the Islamic regime’s nuclear program did not pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. In the past, Israeli leaders always complained about Iran’s nuclear program and told Washington that with or without its participation or even approval Israel had to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat. Now it appears that the latest developments in the Gulf are benefitting the Jewish state more than anyone else.