Should Iranian Threats Be Taken Seriously?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

After the tumultuous events of 2011, the ratcheting up of rhetoric over a possible conflict in the straits of Hormuz couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment. Very few people in the United States or in Iran seem willing to deescalate the war of words. The danger looms of a repeat of Iraq in 2003, when the meme of war seeped into policy-making and reached a point of no return. For observers in the region this risk is palpable, although there seems to be a difference of opinion regarding how seriously the Iranian threats should be taken.

Al Hayat’s Walic Choucair presents a broad panorama of what 2012 holds for the region, particularly Iran: “Iran is anticipating the possibility of losing its geographical and political connection to the Arab East, and between [Iraq and Lebanon] in particular. The Gulf and western states have been unable to de-couple Iran and Syria, but this could succeed in the Syrian intifada, if it changes the regime or weakens it…. This has prompted Iran to anticipate the change in Syria by being more hard-line in taking the reins of power in Iraq…. The harmony between the Syrian leadership and Iran and the requirements of Iran’s influence in Lebanon have foiled attempts to draft an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Syria….In short, 2012 will be a year of hard-line Iranian stances in Iraq and Lebanon, to compensate for the weakness of its lynchpin, Syria.”

Tariq Al-Homayed expresses concern over Iranian brinksmanship, cautioning in an article on Asharq Alawsat: “Wars are preceded by talk, and the statements — or the war of words — between Iran and the West and Israel is now wide open. We now see Tehran involving all the regional countries in this war of words, which may quickly develop into a military confrontation, after Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz should there be any international embargo on its oil…. Iran’s fiery rhetoric today may hasten the outbreak of a coming war, whilst Tehran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz will convince the international community of the legitimacy of breaking the bones of the Iranian regime, particularly as Tehran’s hands are interfering in many areas of our region.”

For its neighbors, the Iranian threat seems to be even more real. Ahmed Al-Jarallah reflects concern as he tries to hedge his arguments on the Kuwaiti daily Arab Times: “The international isolation of the Mullah’s regime in Iran has imposed upon it such a miserable reality that it has turned into a snake which bites itself if there is nothing around it to bite. The statements of some of the regime’s leaders about closing the Strait of Hormuz, in case the international community imposes an embargo on Iranian oil exports, are just hollow threats that the world has got used to…. However, Gulf states must not show leniency towards the threats issued regularly by leaders of the Revolutionary Guards….The regime’s isolation may even push it to commit a foolish terrorist act, especially if it continues to plant its destructive cells in many of the countries in the region in preparation of plans to disrupt peace and stability.”

But Abdulateef Al-Mulhim doesn’t buy the argument that Iran is set on war. In an op-ed on the Saudi Arab News, Al-Mulhim asserts: “Every five years, the Iranians would threaten the whole world that they would close the Strait of Hormuz. They never did. They simply can’t do it and they are not capable of doing it even if they wanted to do it….The Iranians don’t have the sophisticated torpedoes, sophisticated surface to air missiles and they don’t have any airborne radar (AWACS) capability. As for their outdated diesel submarine, the Iranians are not well trained for sophisticated under-water operations and their submarines have a very limited underwater capability. And the weakest Iranian military point is that they don’t have an air force.”

That same understanding of Iranian capabilities is also behind the reasoning of last week’s editorial by The National, which nevertheless cautions: “Words can be dangerous by themselves. Iran’s threat on Tuesday to close the Strait of Hormuz is almost certainly just that — only words — but it is the sort of ill-conceived bluster that could have unintended consequences….Tehran’s leaders are well aware that a war would be a disaster for Iran as much as any other country. As such, these statements are very close to errant nonsense, a poor attempt at brinkmanship that plays well for a domestic audience….The UAE and other GCC nations must prepare for the worst given this fractious neighbor. Military procurements — and the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline to Fujairah — help to offset the Iranian threat. But that is preparing for the worst-case scenario. Tehran’s bluster is now so frequent that it would be a mistake to pay it too much attention.”

There is good reason to believe that domestic politics are behind the current bluster coming out of Iran. According to two different Tehran Times reports, relatives of President Ahmadinejad and Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were singled out for harsh treatment from the clerical regime. In one report, “Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was sentenced to six months in prison on Tuesday on the charge of spreading propaganda against the Islamic system. She was also banned from having political, cultural, and media activities for five years.” Tehran Times also reported: “President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has revoked his decision to appoint Mahdi Khorshidi-Azad, his son-in-law, as the director of the Institute of Standards and Industrial Research of Iran (ISIRI), according to ISIRI director Nezameddin Barzegari. Barzegari said on Tuesday that the president told him on Monday night that he has been reinstated. Khorshidi-Azad was appointed as ISIRI director on December 26, 2011. His appointment drew strong criticism from a number of MPs.”

Also picking up on the idea that the threat over Hormuz was aimed at Iranian domestic audiences rather than international ones, Yasmin Alem reflects on Tehran’s domestic politics, which he categorizes as “torn ahead of the March election….The parliamentary elections on March 2, 2012 are arguably one of the most consequential electoral events in the 32-year history of the Iranian theocracy. The legislative poll could serve as a barometer measuring the regime’s legitimacy, assessing the state of its internal conflicts and projecting its political future….Beyond signaling who may become the next president, the 2012 vote could be a litmus test for the country’s political course….The kaleidoscopic year of 2011 was marked with global uprisings against tyranny and injustice. As many states from the Middle East to Europe succumb to popular discontent and initiate change, Iran appears to be steering against the tide of history. Choosing repression over reform — a choice that could be reflected in this election — could prove fateful for the Iranian regime.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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