NEW YORK — It would be relatively easy for Iran to make good on its threat to close the strategic waterway that carries oil tankers from the Persian Gulf — and it would probably hurt itself most by taking such action.
"Iran is as reliant, if not more reliant, on the Strait of Hormuz than any other country," said Ali Nader of the RAND Corp. research institute in a telephone interview.
Iran has threatened to halt traffic through the strait if the West moves to toughen sanctions including an oil embargo to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program. The strait is the passageway for about a third of the world's seaborne-traded oil last year, according to Department of Energy data.
"Iran has total control over the strategic waterway," Iranian Naval Commander Admiral Habibollah Sayari told Iran's Press TV Wednesday as the Iranian navy conducted a 10-day exercise in international waters. "Closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy for Iranian naval forces."
"The free flow of goods and services through the Strait of Hormuz is vital to regional and global prosperity," Lt. Rebecca Rebarich, a U.S. Navy spokeswoman in Bahrain, site of the 5th Fleet headquarters, said in an email. "Any disruption will not be tolerated."
U.S. officials and outside experts concede that Iran could block the strait, at least temporarily. Testifying to Congress in March, Defense Intelligence Agency director Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess said that Iran is expanding its Persian Gulf naval bases, allowing it to "attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz temporarily" during a crisis.
Were Iran to make such a move, it might be hurt more than its adversaries.
Iran's economy is shaky, as is popular support for its clerical rulers, Nader said. The country is facing new Western efforts to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program, including U.S. sanctions that are awaiting President Barack Obama's signature and a possible European Union ban on imports of Iranian oil.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Iran's threats to close the strait are only the beginning of what could be five to 10 years of feints, attacks and rising tensions in the Gulf.
That, Cordesman said in a telephone interview, could require the United States to change its military posture in the Persian Gulf region at a time when the U.S. is facing intense budget pressures and the Obama administration has signaled its intention to focus more attention on the Pacific.
"We have been through an awful lot in the Gulf, where nothing has escalated or triggered a major conflict," Cordesman said.
"When you are raising oil prices by having tankers pay higher insurance premiums, it's out of hand, but the question is how much out of hand," he said. "You have to be careful in going from Iranian statements which are also aggressive to assuming we are in middle of a crisis — we aren't yet."