Iran has been relentlessly provoking America for the last 10 days. Its military recently threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, and Tehran warned on Tuesday that US aircraft carriers should not return to the Gulf. But Iran is bluffing and war with the US or Israel is very unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Tehran is indeed angry and its rage has been steadily building in recent months. The latest and strongest trigger was a sanctions bill, signed by President Barack Obama on December 31, which will make it more difficult and less profitable for Iran to sell oil. The legislation goes after its economic lifeline: oil revenues. The move doubtlessly chafed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle, and led them to respond predictably – by rattling western markets and diplomats.

But Iran does not want war. Military conflict in the Strait of Hormuz would block its own ability to export oil. An attempt to close the strait would be fruitless because the US Navy could open it within weeks. War could easily spread and lead to an attack on Iran’s crown jewel – its nuclear programme. Ayatollah Khamenei has his hands full at home with a plummeting currency and infighting among his elite. Tehran’s main goal is to scare the US and its allies away from implementing sanctions against Iran’s oil exports. And despite the bellicose rhetoric, there are signs that the regime seeks to return to talks – suggesting a two-track policy.

For a war, Iran needs an opponent; but neither the US nor Israel are interested in an imminent fight. Israel is pleased with the new oil sanctions. An attack on Iran would have serious challenges – Israel could only inflict limited damage on the nuclear programme and would face severe retribution from Tehran. Meanwhile, leading members of the US military have spoken out against attacking Iran, the American public has no appetite for another war, and conflict in the Gulf would lead to a spike in oil prices, potentially plunging the global economy into full-blown recession.

Undoubtedly, however, miscalculation by Iran or the US could lead to conflict, as the sides’ naval and other military hardware are in proximity. In the more distant future, as yet unseen progress by Iran on its nuclear programme, especially in building faster centrifuges, could cause conflict – particularly if the new equipment is used to build a bomb.

But many observers are misreading the current joust in the Gulf. Iran is bluffing and baiting, but neither the US nor Israel will bite.

This article is co-authored by Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, and Cliff Kupchan, a director at the political risk consultancy

Get alerts on Arab-Israel conflict when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article