The United States and Iran are once again set on a collision course -- this time over the world's narrowest choke point, the Strait of Hormuz. With the specter of more draconian sanctions hovering over its oil exports, the Iranian regime threatened in late December to seal off the strait through which 30 percent of the world's oil supply travels. Iran's menacing rhetoric was matched by a bellicose rebuff from the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, based in neighboring Bahrain, warning that any disruption of the strait "will not be tolerated."
The exchange was of a piece with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's new foreign-policy doctrine: Iran will "respond to threats with threats." The regime's inflammatory language certainly got the world's attention, reminding the West and its local allies that the Persian Gulf is a tinderbox where a single miscalculation could trigger a catastrophic war.
But was threatening to set off a global recession such a smart move? In fact, Khamenei -- the ultimate arbiter of Iran's internal politics and international relations -- has proved himself a poor analyst of the West's red lines toward his country, and this confrontation is just the latest incident to bring the supreme leader's strategic calculus into question. Although Tehran might benefit from the threat by jacking up oil prices, a blockade of the strait would deprive the Iranian government of half its revenue, sour relations with China and Japan, alienate Oman and Iraq as its remaining regional allies, and escalate conflict with Washington to a level that could easily spiral out of control. It would be an own goal of epic proportions.
Whether these threats are serious or not, Iran is playing a dangerous game of chicken. Just this week, the regime conducted a military drill in the Persian Gulf and announced a new breakthrough in its nuclear program, raising concern in Washington and feeding into hawkish critiques of U.S. President Barack Obama's sanctions strategy. But is bluster a winning strategy for Iran? The Islamic Republic has a history of boneheaded foreign-policy blunders, and no single case illustrates Khamenei's strategic ineptitude better than his handling of Iran's nuclear crisis.
At its onset, nearly a decade ago, the firestorm over Iran's atomic ambitions was a blessing in disguise for the supreme leader. For the first time since the Iran-Iraq War, the regime had an issue that could potentially revitalize its exhausted esprit de corps, rally the nation around the flag, bolster Iran's clout across the Islamic world, and fracture the hostile international coalition.
At first, the shock and awe of Saddam Hussein's 2003 overthrow in Iraq compelled the conservative ayatollah to opt for compromise over conflict. When negotiations with the Europeans failed to win U.S. support, however, Khamenei concluded that "nuclear diplomacy" was little more than regime change in disguise.
The turbaned helmsman laid out his nuclear calculus in a meeting of Iran's Supreme National Security Council in 2004. Contending that the United States and its allies were unwilling to find a modus vivendi with the Iranian theocracy, Khamenei maintained that nuclear capitulation would only invite more pressure on human rights issues, sponsorship of terrorism, and regional subversion.
The nuclear nonproliferation regime also appeared innately unjust, particularly given Israel's atomic ambiguity. The regime's ideological foundations, based on warmed-over Third Worldism and Islamic universalism, also called for resistance. Thus, strategic considerations were melded with ideology to transform the nuclear program into the apotheosis of Iran's revolutionary defiance.
Initially, Khamenei's nuclear brinkmanship seemed to have worked. But even a successful policy requires constant recalibration -- a skill that the stubborn, geriatric leader lacks.