By Navid Fozi-Abivard
Iranian foreign policy is today more unpredictable and dangerous than in the past, with recent events illustrating this instability. Sanctions imposed on the Iranian Central Bank by the British and U.S. governments last month, as well as their talk of sanctions on Iranian oil, have increased tensions—not to mention the United States’ October 2011 claim of an Iranian plot to assassinate its Saudi ambassador and its December 2011 offer of a $10 million bounty for an alleged al-Qaʿida Iran-based financier.
Iran has responded with claims of having captured a U.S. spy drone and the arrest of Amir Mirzai Hekmati, an alleged Iranian-American spy who received a death sentence earlier this week. And last week, Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi responded to the warning of sanctions on oil by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, which hosts the daily passage of approximately 17 million barrels of the stuff. His threat followed the Iranian navy’s ten-day “Velayat 90” exercise in the Strait, which began on 24 December and successfully tested advanced electronic and optic communications systems. The government has announced another exercise due to take place next month, this time involving the Revolutionary Guard’s “train[ing] for the order to close Hormuz.” The U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain subsequently warned against any disruption in the Strait, and on 7 January the UK sent her most powerful naval vessel—the Type 45 Destroyer HMS Daring—to the Persian Gulf.
There is no question that closing the Strait of Hormuz would be tantamount to suicide for Iran. It would violate international laws that give Iran 14 miles of territorial waters off its coasts, leaving the remainder of the Strait’s 20 miles out of Iran’s territory. Even if Iran succeeds in disrupting the passage of oil tankers and other vessels, such a disruption would last only a few days before regional and Western forces would restore security to the international waters. And thereafter as punishment Iran’s two million barrels of oil per day would likely not be allowed through. Nonetheless, closing the Strait could happen for a variety of reasons, including the country’s divided government, the rogue elements of the Revolutionary Guard, and Iran’s isolation from the countries of the Arab world in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” These elements have combined to create a situation of instability and volatility that could spur Iran to make daring and imprudent decisions.
The conservatives—principally the supporters of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei—have been bitterly divided. Such factionalism is reaching a dangerous point with the approach of the March 2012 parliamentary elections. While the divide between the president and the Supreme Leader is nothing new, it has become much more contentious since the contested presidential election of 2009, when Khamenei spent all his political and religious capital on Ahmadinejad—who then proceeded to try to undermine his authority. It would be extremely costly for Khamanei to officially remove Ahmadinejad, however much he might desire it.
The Foreign Ministry is one battleground on which this division is fought. In August 2010, Ahmadinejad attempted to circumvent Khamenei’s interference in foreign policy by appointing four “special envoys” to cover the affairs of the Middle East, Asia, Afghanistan, and the Caspian Sea. Protests by MPs and complaints from Khamenei caused him to change the envoys to “advisors,” hence limiting their power. Then in December 2010 came Ahmadinejad’s firing of Foreign Minister and Khamanei loyalist Manouchehr Mottaki as part of this power struggle. Khamenei, in response, has sent his own delegates to Turkey—reportedly three times—to meet with Syrian opposition leaders, who then accused Iran of trying to bribe them to support al-Asad. Khamanei also sent Minister of Intelligence Heidar Moslehi, who he had not let Ahmadinejad replace, to a covert Saudi visit.
The reformists also play a role in the current contentious political scene. Ayatollah Ali Saidi, Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guard, last week confessed that “we cannot take further action against Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi [presidential candidates who have been under house arrest for over a year], since they have harim and hava-dar that I cannot name.” Here, Saidi means that Mousavi and Karroubi have supporters among high ranking officials. Such a confession points to a political situation in which all are jockeying for position and nothing is certain.
Another destabilizing factor pertains to the Revolutionary Guard, which seems to have developed a taste for operating outside the establishment. While the November 2011 attack on the British embassy had the support of a number of MPs interested in diverting attention from their alleged involvement in an historical $3 billion embezzlement from the Iranian banking system, the Revolutionary Guard pursued such behavior in order to strengthen its grip on the underground economy. Essentially, further sanctions from the West will lead to an expansion of the black market, which is in the hands of the Guard. Moreover, reports of elements in the Guard cooperating with Israel and the United States to identify and target sensitive nuclear and military sites (similar to what happened in Karaj and Esfahan in the last several months) also complicate the picture.
Iran is also experiencing isolation from the countries of the Arab world, who accuse it of exploiting the turmoil in the region for its own benefit by framing the uprisings as an echo of the Islamic Revolution; by instigating Shiʿi uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; and by criticizing Arab monarchs. These accusations, coupled with the escalation of the Hormuz threat, have helped the United States reach a new arms deals with the Arab world—$29.4 billion to Saudi Arabia and $3.5 billion to the UAE. Further complications result from the recent Shiʿi-Sunni divide in Iraq and the return of the Taliban to Afghan peace talks. All these events have sidelined Iran and tightened international pressure on the country, increasing the possibility of an irrational move.
Expecting Iranian foreign policy to operate rationally at such a time would thus be dangerous. Yet, most likely, when push comes to shove the Iranians will give in—and there are signs of such a development. For instance, they have agreed to continue talks with the 5+1 group in Turkey about their nuclear program. Minister of Defense Ahmad Vahidi also said on 9 January that “we did not say we will close the Strait of Hormuz.” However, chances for a mistake are high, as the governing capacity of the regime has been largely impaired, and the deepening divide in the face of the upcoming parliamentary elections increases the possibility that rogue elements will pursue their own agenda. Sanctioning Iranian oil might serve as a reason to encourage them.
Originally from Iran, Navid Fozi-Abivard is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at MEI, where he is conducting research on contemporary Iranian politics. His project is entitled “Neo-Iranian Nationalism: Pre-Islamic Grandeur and Shiʿa Eschatology in Iranian Contemporary Politics.” Dr. Fozi-Abivard holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in sociocultural anthropology from Boston University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively. He also holds an M.A. in
 “IRGC Trains for Orders to Close Hormuz,” Press TV, 8 January 2012. Available at: http://presstv.com/detail/219961.html.
 “Iranian Defense Minister: We Did Not Say We Will Close the Hormuz Strait,” BBC Persian, 9 January 2012. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2012/01/120108_u10_iran_hormouz_vahidi.shtml (in Persian).