Iran this week punctuated ten days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.
The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined it ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms. Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:
Iran…lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi‘a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi‘a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.