Several months ago, the European Union negotiated to impose an oil embargo on Iran, which came into effect on July 1. In response, Tehran has begun a three-day missile exercise in the northeast of the country with twin objectives: maintaining a blockade on the Hormuz Strait and fighting as far away as Israel. Effectively, Israel and all regional American/Western assets would fall under striking distance.
Iran has done two things that make it a tough nut to crack: It has routinizned rocket technology and reiterated a defensive doctrine. In other words, if the West attacks first, it will first be a political bonanza for the regime in Tehran to legitimate itself with, and second, be able to inflict horrendous losses on the attackers in a local and regional plan via asymmetrical warfare and these very same rockets.
Another important dimension is the fact that China and Singapore were exempted from the next round of sanctions to be placed on Iran, which means two things: America is no longer able to coerce China’s behaviour indirectly, and Iran has some breathing room with an infinite market next door; i.e., nothing stops Teheran from establishing a bilateral system of payments with China that mirrors the SWIFT payments infrastructure from which it was disconnected a while ago.
What will happen to Syria is an open question. If the conflict spills beyond its borders, it will flare up the unresolved Kurdish question in Iraq and Turkey, may destabilize Lebanon, and Israel will be left in a conundrum because it will have to devote more resources to the immediate rather than the long-range neighborhood.
Blocking the Hormuz Strait will not be more difficult than torpedoing several needless cargo ships or tankers – nothing outside of Teheran’s capacity. This will limit what American fleets in the region can do and retrench Iran’s defensive position. In other words, the risk of war increases, but it remains a strategic nightmare if it happens, because it will be a regional, not a bilateral conflict, with unclear outcomes.