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New Report: Rouhani's Saber Rattling And Hormuz Amid Iran Protests
Analysis

New Report: Rouhani’s Saber Rattling And Hormuz Amid Iran Protests

Screenshot of Iranian protests in June, 2018

Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis

The current protests in Iran are primarily socio-economic in nature and target President Rouhani’s government for its failure to deliver on promises for economic improvement. Conservative and hardline media are depicting the protests as legitimate, and emphasising their anti-Rouhani nature.

The recent protests that erupted on 8 July were sparked by shortage of drinking water, particularly in such cities as Abadan and Khorramshahr. In Khorramshahr clashes with police were particularly intense and hundreds of people were arrested.

Iran Sends Representatives Abroad To Find A Way Out From Looming Sanctions

Khorramshahr is situated in the Arab-populated province of Khuzestan, which means that most of its inhabitants are ethnic Arabs. The Arab population of Iran feels marginalized and discriminated against. On the other hand it is noteworthy that the Arabs of Khuzestan are Shiites and proud Iranians, Iran being a successful multi ethnic nation state.

Khorramshahr also performed a historic role during the Iran-Iraq war. The city was captured on 26 October 1980 by the Iraqi army. The Iranian forces retook Khorramshahr on 24 May 1982. The liberation of Khorramashahr was perceived as the turning point in the war against the Iraqi aggression. The liberation of Khorramshahr is officially celebrated in Iran. Residents of Khorramshahr suffered from atrocities of the occupying Iraqi forces; the city was captured by the Iraqis only after they killed all the Iranian defenders. When the Iranian army came back to Khorramshahr it sustained heavy casualties. The premise of Saddam that Arab Iranians would ally with his army (because of the supposed Arab nationalism) was dealt a fatal blow, just as Khomeini’s parallel premise that Iraqi Arab Shi’ites would ally with Iran due to the shared religious identity has also proven flawed.

The symbolic importance of Khorramshahr in Iran’s history as an epitome of patriotism, sacrifice and bravery is hard to overestimate. This is why the protests over shortage of drinking water in the city are particularly important because they highlight more than anywhere else in Iran the failure and the shortcomings of the Revolution and the regime.

Rouhani is currently losing his base of support among reformists and moderate conservatives. This notwithstanding one should bear in mind that the president is not to blame for the hardships of the economy of Iran; Rouhani can do only little alone, neither can he release Iran’s economy from the grip of the IRGC.
Against the background of the troubles at home, meanwhile, Rouhani recently visited Switzerland and Austria, where he engaged in efforts to preserve the JCPOA and curb the impact of sanctions.

Rouhani announced that the United States would not succeed in stopping Iran from selling its oil

During his visit in Switzerland Rouhani announced that the United States would not succeed in stopping Iran from selling its oil. He said that it was “meaningless” to say that Iranian oil should not be exported while oil from the region is exported. Interestingly, this statement by Rouhani prompted approval from most of the Iranian media irrespective of their moderate or conservative stance. Moreover, most newspapers understood Rouhani’s statement as a tacit threat to close the Straits of Hormuz, which is the strategic lifeline of maritime communications and oil transportation in the Persian Gulf.

An op-ed in the centrist Qanun depicted Rouhani’s pronouncement as “diplomacy with a flavor of anger”, while the economic daily Tejarat said Rouhani had issued an “oil warning”. Conservative newspaper Sobh-e No’s headline read: “If Iran does not sell, no oil will leave the region,” while another conservative paper Resalat said: “The region’s oil will not be exported without Iran.” While neither paper mentioned the Straits of Hormuz by name, they published large satellite images of the strategic chokepoint.

No less interesting is the fact that many Iranian netizens understood Rouhanis’ statement exactly as the above mentioned official new outlets: Thehashtag #Strait_of_Hormuz (tang-e hormuz) is very popular on Twitter.

Protests In Iran Continue Despite Maximum Suppression

Rouhani’s statement was welcomed nationwide in Iran and it triggered a further chain of similar reactions, this time by the senior military command.

The commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Mohammad Ali Jaafari said that Iran is able to close the Straits of Hormuz, suggesting that other countries in the Persian Gulf will not be allowed to sell their oil if the US sanctions target Tehran’s oil sales.

According to Tasnim news agency, Major-General Mohammad Ali Jaafari made reference to the “firm” statements by President Hassan Rouhani who during his recent visit to Switzerland dismissed the US move to re-impose sanctions on his country’s oil industry. Rouhani said that it would be “meaningless” to say that Iranian oil should not be exported while oil from the region is exported. Many observers have speculated that Rouhani’s comments could mean Iran would attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz, a strategic narrow strip in the Persian Gulf through which around 30 per cent of all seaborne oil exports pass.

Major-General Jafari expressed the hope that the warning issued by Rouhani would be implemented if necessary and emphasized that all people and officials support the move.

“Definitely, with the implementation of the recent statements by the country’s executive officials who are adopting a revolutionary viewpoint in today’s battlefield against the enemy – particularly against the sly and criminal America – it will be possible to make the enemies understand what using the Straits of Hormuz by all or no one could mean.”

IRGC commander warns that Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz

Another senior IRGC commander warned that Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz if the US imposes sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. Esmail Kowsari, the deputy commander of IRGC’s Sarallah Base maintained that “we will not permit oil export to other parts of the world through the Hormuz Strait if it America imposes a ban on Iran’s oil export”.

Iranian social media users and newspapers also have reacted to senior Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s letter to President Hassan Rouhani thanking him for threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf in response to the United States’ attempts to curtail Iran’s oil exports.

Pro-regime Iranian netizens praised the IRGC Qods Force commander for his prompt reaction and his expression of readiness to serve the interests of the Islamic establishment. Soleimani said in his letter that he kisses Rouhani’s hand for his staunch pro-Islamic Republic stance. The moderate cleric Mosavi Tehrani tweeted:” “Mr Soleimani, the hand you are kissing is the cleanest hand in the history of the [ Revolution”.

This notwithstanding, other anti-regime users interpreted Soleimani’s letter as an indication of cohesiveness among all the power centers of the regime in spite of contentious relations between the president and the IRGC. A user named Salman Sima tweeted “the fact that Qassem Soleimani’s backs Rouhani proved once again that “the yellow dog is the jackal’s brother” (a reference to the Iranian proverb, suggesting that the president and the Quds force commander are the same despite apparent difference) -”

“Moderates, reformists, and principalists [usulgerayan- a general term to denote Iranian conservatives) are all organs of the same body. Usually Iranian media absorb perfectly well tacit hints and allusions, so characteristic for the Iranian culture where the etiquette ( ta’arof) has enormous importance. This in turn explains why hardline, conservative and moderate media understood Rouhani’s statement as referring to the blockage of Hormuz straits. But what is really behind these bellicose statements?

Strategically speaking, a closure of the Hormuz straits by Iran would mean an inevitable military conflict and skyrocketing prices of oil and insurance, added to the existential threat to the stability of the Gulf petro-monarchies.

Is Rouhani unsheathing Iran’s strategic sword?

So is Rouhani unsheathing Iran’s strategic sword? No. Rather, his statements are almost certainly a bluff.

Najafi Tehrani, a political and cultural analyst tweeted that the threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is the kind of bluff that never came true even during the Iran-Iraq war. Both the protests in Khorremshahr and Rouhani’s statement evoke associations with the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran never closed the Straits of Hormuz even during the war against Iraq, namely in the course of the “tanker war” in the Gulf since 1984. Iraqis attacked Iranian oil tankers, possibly hoping to provoke Iranians to block the straits as retaliation, however the Iranian retaliatory measures were confined to attacks against Iraqi ships. Moreover, In April 1988 the US navy launched the Praying Mantis operations in the course of which several Iranian vessels were sunk. The operation was a retaliation after the USS Samuel B. Roberts was hit by an Iranian sea mine.

At that period the zeal of the revolution and the bellicosity were still fresh yet Iranian cold blooded assessment of the dangers prevented an escalation. The current circumstances absent a real military conflict in the Gulf lead to the conclusion that Iran won’t resort to such an extreme measure like the closure of the Hormuz Straits. The high command of the IRGC and the leader Khamene’i are fully aware that such a move would provoke an immediate American military reaction with unforeseeable implications for the Iranian regime.

So why is Rouhani making such statements? The most plausible explanation would be his urgent need to prove and demonstrate his loyalty to the hardline system. By the same token, Qassem Suleimani thanked Rouhani in a letter not because he is planning to close the Hormuz Straits but in order to informally demonstrate that despite disagreements the president, the Leader and the high military command are united ahead of new difficult period.

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