The price of oil---a bit over $100 per barrel for Brent crude---has been slipping lately, but it wouldn't take much to drive the cost of gasoline through the roof. With about of a third of the world's oil supply coming through the Persian Gulf, Iran thinks that obstructing its flow is a viable weapon against nations whose aim is to prevent Iran from fielding a nuclear capability. And a stunning indicator of Iran's intentions can be seen right now: it is stockpiling food.
One reason is that meaningful sanctions, imposed only recently, are beginning to have an effect. Iran has no intention of ceasing its development of nuclear weapons, and it assumes that the West has no intention of lifting sanctions. Drought is a compounding factor, and Iran has had to import agricultural products, now more difficult to do. But Iran expects things to get worse, and one reason is that it anticipates conflict in the Gulf.
The development of a nuclear arsenal takes time, and we have given Iran plenty of it, but so far---and we should be thankful for the sheer serendipity of our good fortune---not enough. Already with a history of interfering with vessels in the area, Iran has concluded that only open hostilities in the Gulf can punish the United States. To that end, it has been practicing tactics of naval harassment and the use of patrol boats and submarines in local attacks, and its rules of engagement, as in the past, include the delegation of authority to local naval commanders to attack American vessels.
Although American naval and air superiority will defeat these assaults, Iran figures that we will sustain losses, too, and for the mullahs there is a measure of satisfaction in that. But their principal objective is to force the price of oil to rise dramatically and, if it can sustain the harassment, keep it high over an extended period to encourage the West to lift sanctions. Once the shooting starts, it will be something of a game of chicken: will Western public opinion, irate at the soaring price of fuel, force its leaders to capitulate before Iran's losses motivate it to quit the attacks? Iran is banking on the West's impatient polity and its penchant for lacking the political will to persevere.
In a region whose thin veneer of stability has been abraded by adventure, revolution and miscalculation, more violence will be bad news indeed, and Israel, in particular, is not looking forward to it. But the danger of an unrestrained Iran is greater than the portent of unpleasantness, and ultimately it will take more violence than some naval skirmishes to keep Iran at bay.
Given that Iran has been an enemy of the United States for 33 years, it's shocking to realize that we have waited until now to attempt to affect how it acts. Sanctions are taking a toll, but they come very late in the day, at a time when Teheran's military capability is as strong as it has been since the 1979 revolution.
So far, the mere possibility of naval action has been insufficient to increase the market price of crude oil, but actual hostilities will certainly do it. At the moment we don't see the need to stockpile food like Iran is, but when the shooting starts in the Strait of Hormuz, we may wish we had acted sooner...or at least stockpiled a few gallons of gas.