One hundred years ago this week, five Italian torpedo boats conducted a raid in the Straits of Dardanelles, a long, narrow body of water connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara -- then the world's most important shipping passage. It was the height of the Italo-Turkish War, a precursor to World War I, and the Young Turks in Constantinople responded by playing their trump card: They closed the strait to international shipping intermittently for a few weeks by deploying their warships. But instead of aiding the war effort -- the Turks eventually lost control of their Libyan provinces -- the closure had disastrous consequences for the Ottoman Empire.
At the time, the Russians sent 90 percent of their grain exports through the Turkish Straits out into the Mediterranean. Closure of the Dardanelles thus meant that millions of tons of grain were spoiled, bringing ruin to Russia's agricultural economy and reducing its export revenues for the year by 30 percent. The lesson for Tsar Nicholas II: never allow a foreign power to hold the key to your prosperity. From that point onward, Russia's foreign policy in the lead-up to World War I was laser-focused on one objective: accelerating the demise of the Ottoman Empire and inheriting control over Constantinople and the Straits.
Fast forward 100 years and free passage through another strategic strait, the Strait of Hormuz, is endangered. This time it is the disruption of the oil supply, not grain, that has great powers vexed, and it is Iran that's doing the threatening. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni neighbors -- with China's help -- are assuming Russia's role in altering the world's geopolitics.
Today, Iran's economy is in shambles. Its oil exports have plummeted by nearly 50 percent since last year because of U.S. and European sanctions, while its annual inflation rate has surpassed 30 percent and its currency has declined by 50 percent against the dollar. And the more desperate the Iranians become, the more aggressively they threaten to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil passes each day.
In late June, the commander of the Iranian army's ground forces, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan said that "if conditions arise in which the Iranian nation feels threatened, it will use all [its] means of pressure, including in the Strait of Hormuz" -- a sentiment that his superior, Maj. Gen. Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, echoed a few days later. Iranian naval officials have confirmed that they have already installed sea-to-sea missiles on small, speedy patrol vessels with advanced maneuvering capabilities. Later this month, Iran's parliament is scheduled to vote on a bill to block passage through the Strait to oil tankers linked to countries applying new European Union (EU) sanctions -- a measure that would apply to 27 EU counties and the United States and violate the Law of the Sea Treaty, which permits passage through the Strait in both directions even though part of the navigation route falls within Iran's territorial waters.
So far, Iran's threats have invited yawns from the oil market, which seems to be more concerned about declining demand from stagnant economies than a drop in supply. (Oil prices have dropped nearly 20 percent since April.) And there are good reasons to think Iran is bluffing: At its narrowest, the Strait is about 25 miles wide -- a fact that even the most neurotic traders seem to have grasped. Blocking an area as wide as Singapore will require a vast and sustained naval effort that the Iranians cannot muster. To be sure, they could mine coastal waters and harass the occasional vessel, but closing the Strait for a meaningful length of time is a far-fetched scenario that would undoubtedly trigger a swift and decisive U.S. military response. Yet Tehran would have us think otherwise.