Strait of Hormuz Naval Drills: Iran Flexes Muscle With War Games

In a move designed to further display its military strength, Iran announced early Friday that it began six days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz — the strategically vital waterway that forms the Persian Gulf’s only connection to the open ocean.

Naval commander Habibollah Sayyari stated that the "Velayat 91" exercises would last until Wednesday and encompass an area of approximately one million square kilometers including the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman, and northern areas of the Indian Ocean, official state news agency IRNA reported.

The military exercises are designed to demonstrate "the armed forces' military capabilities" in defending Iran from external threats, Sayyari noted, as well as showcase the Iranian Navy's missile systems, combat ships, submarines, and patrol and reconnaissance assets.

Military games aren’t a new method of muscleflexing for Iran, of course. The country held similar 10-day exercises last December in the Strait of Hormuz, which followed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s refusal to rule out the option of military action against Iran in response to the country’s controversial nuclear program, which Iran maintains is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. says is an attempt to build nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials have often repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of military action against the country by either Israel or the United States, a move that would have severe consequences to the global economy and energy market. Over 40% of the world’s sea-borne oil exports, a fifth of total worldwide production, pass through the Strait every day. The U.S. has itself long maintained a heavy naval presence in the Gulf, with the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet based in nearby Bahrain, and U.S. and European military forces are continually deployed throughout the region and in the Strait to act as a deterrent to Iranian provocation.

With competing military exercises, both Iran and the U.S. aim to send corresponding messages. Iran is attempting to convey that it maintains the ability to close the Strait if and when its chooses to do so, while the U.S. is intimating that it can and will counter any Iranian interference in obstructing the free flow of goods and oil in the Strait. The tit-for-tat nature of these mutual attempts at strategic deterrence in the Strait of Hormuz makes any escalation as a result of Friday’s announced naval drills unlikely.

Many point out that a closure of the Strait would hurt Iran as much as any country, since its fragile economy depends on the oil revenue generated from exports through the Strait. Such a move would also likely isolate the country diplomatically from the few states that still support the beleaguered nation — namely, Russia and China, and certainly invite a military response from either the U.S. or Israel.

The timing of the military show-off also has to be viewed in the context of political events surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. Recent reports have indicated a slowing in uranium enrichment by the Iranians, which some analysts say indicates a willingness on Iran’s part to find a negotiated political solution to the crisis with the West. Economic sanctions against Iran have put an increasing amount of pressure on the country’s financial health, with the Iranian currency losing 40% of its value back in October.

Military exercises by Iran aren’t anything new, and, in isolation, are unlikely to escalate tensions; interpreting a message beyond the continued Iranian claim of its ability to cause mass economic damage (to itself included) is a tricky game with little value. It’s also worth cautioning against the American tendency to view actors as unitary, and Iran in particular as a monolithic adversary; internal political cleavages may help explain often-contradictory messages, like military exercises during a period of slowed enrichment.  

But the moves do remind us of the stakes involved over Iran’s nuclear program, and point to the very source likely to be involved in any potential military escalation: the Strait of Hormuz.