On April 22, 2019, the U.S. administration announced that from May 3, 2019, the U.S. would not renew sanctions waivers for nations importing Iranian oil, with the aim of cutting Iranian oil exports to zero. It should be clarified that in accordance with the official U.S. policy on Iran, the U.S. so far has no intention of implementing this aim by military means but aims instead to economically pressure other countries not to import Iranian oil.
Iran's strategy in response to the U.S. move will focus, apparently, on Iran's rivals in the Gulf by impacting their export of their oil, by means of terror attacks on their facilities and on oil tankers as they sail in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, or Indian Ocean.
It should be noted that in response to what he termed a "number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings" from Iran, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced on May 5 that the U.S. was deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command in the region. This was, he said, "to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces."
Fearing the U.S.'s intentions, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced, in a May 6 interview with the Qatari Al-Jazeera TV, that Iran was willing to reach a non-aggression agreement with every Gulf country. However, he did not mention possible activity by the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias.
This report will examine Iran's threats to block its neighbors' export of oil, and its ability to carry out these threats, and will also include an Al-Alam TV interview with the commander of the navy of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Alireza Tangsiri, in which he discussed the bolstering of Iran's military might in the Gulf, expressing the Iranian regime's view that it is Iranian territory.
Will Iran Close The Strait Of Hormuz?
If in the past Iranian officials regularly threatened that Iran would physically block the Strait of Hormuz, today they are wary of explicitly announcing that such a threat would be carried out – even if they declare that Iran is capable of doing so – for two main reasons:
- The Strait of Hormuz is an international sea lane, and any country's blocking of it – even a geographically proximate country such as Iran – will be a casus belli for the international community. For this reason, Western ships, including U.S. aircraft carriers, patrol the Gulf, in order to assure the free passage of traffic through this strategic strait.
- The blocking of the strait will also harm Iran's oil exports – not only those of its neighbors – and will damage Iran's own economy.
Indeed, Iranian officials' more recent threats have focused on stating that if Iran cannot export its oil, the other Gulf countries won't be able to either.
How Will Iran Carry Out Its Threats?
According to statements by Iranian officials, Iran's reaction will focus not on its initiation of a blockade on sea traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, but on its neighbors and rivals that are exporting oil, and it will do this by carrying out terror operations against their oil facilities or against their oil tankers as they sail in the Red Sea or Persian Gulf in order to prevent them from bringing their oil to international markets. It is also possible that there will be cyberattacks on Gulf oil infrastructure, as happened in August 2012 when tens of thousands of computers of the Saudi oil conglomerate Aramco were hacked and damaged, in an operation attributed to Iran.
It appears that Iran would prefer to operate – as it has in the past – by means of the Shi'ite militias that it backs, such as the Houthis in Yemen, who, in July 2018, on Iranian orders, fired missiles at Saudi oil tankers, causing a temporary stoppage in the export of Saudi oil.
It will be recalled that in August 2018, IRGC Gen. Naser Sha'bani boasted that Iran had told the pro-Iran militia in Yemen, Ansar Allah (i.e. the Houthis), to attack two Saudi oil tankers, and added that it had done as ordered. He went on to clarify that both the Shi'ite Hizbullah in Lebanon and Ansar Allah in Yemen were Iran's homeland depth, and warned that they would continue to be used for Iran's purposes against its rivals in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7612, Statements By Top IRGC Official Gen. Sha'bani Published By Fars News Agency: 'We Told The Yemenis To Attack The Two Saudi Tankers, And They Attacked').
An example of such a future operation can be seen in the April 22, 2019 announcement by Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, who said that his organization's missiles "can reach Riyadh and beyond it, they can reach Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and they can reach sensitive targets."
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Furthermore, on April 13, 2019, the Iranian regime mouthpiece Kayhan called for targeting U.S. economic interests in the region and for blocking the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea to Saudi oil exports. On May 3, Iranian Council of Experts and Tehran Friday preacher Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told worshipers, "America's satanic acts will not go unanswered."
Friday preacher Khatami: "America's satanic acts will not go unanswered." (Source: Tasnim, May 3, 2019)
Iranian Officials Threaten: "If Our Oil Does Not Pass Through The Strait Of Hormuz, Neither Will Other [Countries'] Oil"
In response to the U.S.'s April 22 announcement that beginning May 3 it would not renew sanctions waivers for nations importing Iranian oil, senior Iranian political, military, and IRGC officials announced that the Iranian regime would not allow the marketing of oil from neighboring countries when Iran's oil is not being marketed. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said at an April 24 meeting with workers, in advance of Iran's Labor and Workers Week: "The [U.S.] effort in the matter of oil will go nowhere. We can export our oil as much as we need to and in any quantity we need to. They are imagining now that they will block the [oil shipping] lanes... They are acting with hostility against us and they must know that their hostility will not go unanswered. They will receive an appropriate response to this hostility. The Iranian nation is not one that sits and observes quietly while others plot and act against it."
Iranian President Hassan Rohani was more explicit, threatening Saudi Arabia and the UAE at an April 24 government meeting: "You, who exist in Iran's shadow, how can you tell [President] Trump that if he cuts Iranian oil exports to zero you will compensate for this? Don't you know that Trump's term will end, and we will remain, and that neighbors live next to each other for many long years? Better you should think about permanent friendship in the region. You are alive by virtue of Iran. This is not a lie or a slogan. We prevented your states from being destroyed. How can you today cooperate with our enemies?"
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Former Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki tweeted on April 26: "The sheikhs from the emirates should know that their entering Trump's dangerous game against Iran will bring their oil exports to zero."
Mottaki's tweet, April 26, 2019.
Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, chief of the General Staff of Iran's Armed Forces, said on the margins of the 23rd conference of police commanders and administrators, held April 28: "The Iranian leadership has said on many occasions that securing the Strait of Hormuz is the responsibility of Iran's Armed Forces, and we want it [the strait] to be secure and open. Our oil and products must pass through it, just as the oil and products of other countries do. The Iranian leadership has also said that if anyone threatens the security of the Strait of Hormuz, we will certainly take care of them.
"If our oil does not pass through the Strait of Hormuz, neither will other [countries'] oil. This does not mean [that we intend to] close the strait. We do not mean to close the Strait of Hormuz unless the enemies' hostility reaches a level that leaves us no choice – and we are capable of implementing this, and the enemies know it."
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (image: Fars, Iran, April 28, 2019)
Hossein Sheikholislam, former Iranian ambassador to Syria and currently a Foreign Ministry advisor, threatened on April 29: "America knows very well that if it does anything [against Iran], all its bases in the region will be targets of a hail of precision missiles. The Gulf countries' oil will leave for other parts of the world only if Iranian oil is sold [as well]."
IRGC Navy Commander Alireza Tangsiri told Al-Alam TV on April 22: "According to international law, the Strait of Hormuz is a sea lane, and if we are prevented from using it, we will close it. If we are threatened in any way, we will not hesitate to defend Iran's territorial waters. We will defend our pride, and wherever the discourse focuses on defending Iran's rights, we will [also] take retaliatory action. The foreigners do not care about the security of this region, and do not care if their moves bring about its destruction. The foreigners who are present in the region are enemies of its nations and are considered a threat to the region."
IRGC Navy Commander Alireza Tangsiri In Interview: "This Gulf Is The Persian Gulf, And Is Associated With The Persians And With The State of Iran"
In an earlier Al-Alam interview, on February 25, 2019, Tangsiri explained the Iranian perception that the Persian Gulf historically belongs to Iran and that Iran therefore controls it and monitors every vessel that enters it. He also clarified that Iran sees the foreign forces in the Persian Gulf as a threat and is therefore reinforcing its navy there. The following are the main points of his interview:
First, Tangsiri explained that the navy of the Iranian Armed Forces and the IRGC Navy divide Iran's territorial waters between them: "In the Persian Gulf area, the Armed Forces' navy is present in the Gulf of Oman, from the Strait of Hormuz [eastwards] towards the Indian Ocean and the southern seas, whereas the IRGC Navy is in charge of the Persian Gulf [itself, west of] the Strait of Hormuz. We have 1,375 kilometers of maritime border with the waters of the Persian Gulf. In Hormozgan Province, there are 14 very important strategic islands; Bushehr Province has three, and Khuzestan has two important islands, at the mouth of the Khawr Musa strait.
"The Persian Gulf is a very important area, 250,000 square kilometers. The IRGC Navy has been placed in charge of this area, and is present on all its coasts and monitors every foreign presence in it. Outside this area, namely [along] the Gulf of Oman, the IRGC has two independent posts, one in Jask and the other in Chabahar.
"Iran is in charge of the lane leading into the Strait of Hormuz, and Oman, a friendly sister country, is in charge of the lane leading out of it... We have the longest coast along the Persian Gulf, and since antiquity it has been [known as] the Persian Gulf and has been associated with the Persians and with the Iranian state. It is a long coast that borders only the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the south, we border nine [different] countries, and that shows that this Gulf is the Persian Gulf. The countries across from us are Iraq, with a 75-km [border]; Kuwait, with a border of nearly 900 km, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and after that there is a border with part of Oman..."
Tangsiri: The IRGC Is Monitoring Every Vessel In The Region, We Maintain Full Intelligence Surveillance
"The IRGC is monitoring every vessel in the region, and [those] passing into the region entering via the Persian Gulf. We maintain full intelligence surveillance of them. When a foreign warship enters an [Iranian] military region, the Iranian Army monitors it in the Sea of Oman; in the Persian Gulf, the IRGC Navy monitors it from the moment it enters this closed gulf to the moment it exits.
"Foreigners in this region [i.e. in the Gulf waters]... bring nuclear warships and nuclear submarines into this closed gulf. This is very, very dangerous. America, Britain, France, and countries that have nuclear propulsion equipment bring their vessels into this region. If anything happens to them, there will not be a fish [in the Gulf] for 11 years; all the coral and all living creatures in the water will be destroyed. The presence of foreigners in this region is for us a potential danger..."
Asked whether the Iranian officials' threat to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to the U.S. intent to bring Iranian oil exports to zero could be actualized, Tangsiri said:
"We said [this] even before that. As long as our oil leaves the Strait of Hormuz, and there is no blockade on the exit and entrance of our vessels, this [threat] will not be actualized, and it is not logical that we would want to carry out such a mission. But if one day we feel that [other countries'] oil leaves here while ours does not, it is not logical that this should happen...
"Know that Iran's courageous young people will not permit this matter, and as long as we use the Strait of Hormuz and export our oil and there is no boycott against us, this strait will be open. But when they want to blockade our oil and our vessels... [they] will see that this will not happen...
"We are building submarines and warships and missile launching ships in the array of the Iranian army and the IRGC. [These] missile launchers have a top speed of over 60 knots. The submarine manufactured in Iran has added to the state's defensive capabilities. This capability is first and foremost defensive, but it is defensive [only] as long as we are not attacked and no problem for us is created. All this bears a single message, and that is that the Iranian Navy and the IRGC Navy are 100% prepared. Increasing this capability means, first, security in this sensitive region, and, second, defending Iran's borders...
"We are people who do not fear death. We see death as a way of defending the homeland – as martyrdom. We see death as joining God... No [other] place in the world has [this view]. Brave fighting forces that do not fear death, and a courageous and wise commander [i.e. Khamenei] who does not fear death or the reality of martyrdom – who wants to stand against him?"
Tangsiri: The Three Disputed Gulf Islands Are Iranian
Asked what the IRGC Navy's response was to the UAE's claim to sovereignty over the three disputed islands in the Gulf, Abu Moussa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, Tangsiri replied:
"These islands are Iranian. If we look back at history prior to 1976, they belonged to Iran... The islands are Iranian, and they must remain [so]. Just as we no longer have any claim [to sovereignty] over areas of Bahrain, no one can claim the Iranian islands..."
Tangsiri: "The Presence Of Foreigners In The Region Is A Threat To Us"
Tangsiri continued: "The presence of foreigners in the region is a threat to us, and we are always ready against this threat. [We] are conducting intelligence surveillance against them, and if they make a mistake, we will face them and strike them. As far as we are concerned, a foreigner in the region is meaningless. At this time, there is no enemy in this region; therefore, this enemy is outside the region, and is coming to this region for us... We are preparing every day in the Persian Gulf, and obtaining special equipment to protect the region that was given to us. We have planned and are ready [for an operation] beyond the Persian Gulf and the waters beyond our country...
"We are [situated] next to [our enemies] in the Persian Gulf, and surveilling them. We also maintain a determined presence outside the Persian Gulf. We are not anywhere – we are everywhere. This is our motto... and it means [that we] are present and they don't see [us] and this presence is permanent, with God's help."
*A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Studies Project; E. Kharrazi is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8014, Iranian Regime Mouthpiece 'Kayhan' Calls For Targeting America's Economic Interests In The Region, Blocking Strait Of Hormuz And Red Sea To Saudi Oil Exports, April 22, 2019.
 Tasnim (Iran), May 3, 2019.
 Farsi.khamenei.ir, April 24, 2019.
 President.ir.fa, April 24, 2019.
 Twitter.com/MnMottaki/status/1121790801141358594, April 26, 2019.
 Fars (Iran), April 28, 2019.
 Tasnim (Iran), April 29, 2019.
 Fars (Iran), April 22, 2019.