By David Meyer
July 23, 2018

The leaders of the U.S. and Iran, presidents Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani, have started openly threatening one another, in an escalation of the tensions between the two countries.

The context is the tussle over the future of Iran’s oil exports. The U.S. is trying to stop those exports through sanctions, but Iran has hinted at blocking the Strait of Hormuz—the only way ships can get from the Persian Gulf out to sea—in retaliation.

If Iran were to block the strait, which lies between Iran and Oman, that would make life very difficult for other oil-producing countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which rely on it for shipping their crude.

On Sunday, Rouhani made a televised address in which he warned Trump not to escalate tensions with Iran. “Mr. Trump! We are the honest men who have throughout history guaranteed the safety of this region’s waterways,” he said. “Do not play with the lion’s tail; it will bring regret.”

“Peace with Iran would be the mother of all peace and war with Iran would be the mother of all wars,” Rouhani added for good measure.

President Trump responded by letting loose on Twitter, in all-caps:

“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”

The Strait of Hormuz has been a flashpoint many times before, with the Americans seeing its blockage as a potential trigger for war, due to the havoc it would cause in the international oil market.

The Iranians threatened to block the strait in 2008 and 2011, but backed down both times. Earlier this month, a Revolutionary Guards deputy commander said Iran would halt oil shipments through the strait if the U.S. were to block Iranian oil exports, and Rouhani talked about potentially blocking regional oil exports—though the Iranian president did not overtly mention the Strait of Hormuz at the time.

The commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards has told Rouhani that he supports closing the strait if necessary, in response to the U.S. oil sanctions, which are due to kick in at the start of November.

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