That Rattling Sound You Hear From Iran Is No Saber

by Ryan Sanford Smith

At least, one can assume, not one they intend to actually draw if any modicum of sensible political leadership exists in a country so long held in hand by its clerics.

Just as in the case of North Korea, prominent yet again in the newscycle with their freshly-minted Dear Leader, Iran continues to suffer from what I can only think to call Empty-Scabbard Syndrome. You can only rattle about for so long before everyone involved learns the threat is hollow and treat you as so much white noise.

Tenuous relations between the US and Iran have continued to deteriorate as of late, triggered by a recent report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency that offered all necessary evidence that Iran is continuing work towards obtaining nuclear weapons, escalating once again the Great Fear of our era–that is to say, the anxiety over just what might happen when a madman of Ahmadinejad’s proportions gets hold of weaponry to match his psychopathic ambitions. Left unhindered, we’re surely not far from getting our answer.

The latest and most desperate chest pounding has come late this week as Iran has threatened to use its military to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which tankers carrying about a fifth of the world’s oil must  travel. Time Magazine’s esteemed Mark Thompson has thoroughly analyzed the credibility of this particular threat, and while it would certainly cause at least a temporary increase in the cost of oil and thus enact a kind of counter-sanction, it would seem everyone knows–including Iran–that the only real loser were things to get that far would be Iran itself. Simply put, not only is Iran incapable of militarily standing up to the United States (and others, and there would no doubt be others) for more than a few weeks by even the most generous estimates, Iran would be in no condition or position to incur their inevitable losses. As Thompson is astute to point out, without yet having a nuclear arsenal with which to bargain, this particular oil thoroughfare is the only real chip they have to play with. Unfortunately, it’s not worth all that much, even if they decide to play it.

Iran’s huffing about has come in response to a new round of sanctions backed by both the United States and Europe that would seek to hit a slightly different oil pipeline–the economic routes by which Iran profits from its oil exports. These sanctions would be nothing short of crippling to Iran’s already shambling economy, and one might even speculate on how this might further stir the youthful ire present in the country, particularly in light of how such uprisings, fueled by the young, have spread throughout the Middle East in the so-called Arab Spring. Economic conditions played central roles in nearly every country we’ve seen rebellion flourish, and it’d be foolish to expect Iran to not have noticed this as well. Their accelerated posturing goes a long way in showing how anxious they are over how these newest sanctions from the Obama administration might affect them. They must also realize that any moves to hinder oil shipping would affect many more countries than the United States, and while the US can strategically use targeted sanctions, Iran’s Hormuz chip is the equivalent of a carpet bomb, with which they’d surely burn more bridges than they’d like.

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out here at home as we step into a presidential election year that will see every move by President Obama highly scrutinized. It would indeed seem that any moves that cause an increase in gas prices in the US would work negatively against any incumbent president, particularly once facing harsh criticism over his efficacy in economic matters.

But the US is also a country that seems increasingly uncomfortable with a global landscape involving a nuclear Iran, and against a backdrop of a GOP field full of hawkish posturing of their own, Obama’s economic warfare–especially as it produces greater results–has the benefit of striking Iran where it really hurts, while avoiding (at least for now) additional literal warfare, of which the US as a whole has grown rather tired.

Either way, Iran has no route no route to nuclear armament, at least not a one that wouldn’t cost them more than they should reasonably be willing to suffer, though wondering at how reasonable one can expect them to act under the circumstances is fair. One hopes that the American people will smartly be willing to stomach a short-term hit at the gas pump in order to not have to stomach the far scarier scenario of allowing Iran a real trump card with which to play.