Political realities facing the leaders of the United States and Iran mean that military confrontation between the two states is a distinct possibility. In late December, the Iranian armed forces conducted a number of war games - which included the live firing of missiles - in the Straits of Hormuz and adjacent waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. When the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis sailed for a routine repositioning from the Gulf to the North Arabian Sea, Iran told the United States not to return it to the Gulf region. The commander of Iran's army, General Ataollah Salehi, later reiterated that "The Islamic Republic will not repeat its warning."
On January 6, three armed patrol boats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps came within several hundred yards of a U.S. amphibious assault ship, the USS New Orleans. This is precisely the sort of cat-and-mouse games at sea that can lead to serious miscalculations and subsequent escalation. Many Americans will recall that in 1964 a military encounter between North Vietnamese torpedo boats and the USS Maddox resulted in a pitched sea battle, which was enough to persuade the U.S. Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave President Lyndon Johnson authority to begin the massive escalation in Southeast Asia.
In addition to military brinksmanship, covert military action against Iran's nuclear establishment appears to be increasing. On January 11, the Iranians announced that one of their nuclear scientists had been assassinated in Tehran. They blamed both the United States and Israel though they offered no explicit proof. Some Iranians have publicly called for retaliatory killings. Assassinations and reprisals have long been an important driver in the paths to war. Remember the attempted assassination in London of Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov on June 3, 1982? This attack was attributed to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and provided the pretext for Israel's invasion of Lebanon three days later.
Receive email alerts
Why might Iran be willing to risk confrontation with the United States at this time? It faces draconian new international sanctions, led by the United States, and if the EU agrees to ban imports of Iranian oil at the end of January, its financial situation will further deteriorate. Its currency is in freefall and the business community appears to be in a state of panic. Even Iran's great friend China is cutting back on oil purchases. The regime in Tehran also faces the possibility that its closest Middle East ally, Syria, is edging towards civil war and there is a chance that the Bashar al-Assad regime could eventually be ousted. This would radically change the balance of power in the region and undermine other Iranian allies, especially Hezbollah. While Iran has signaled a willingness to return to Turkey for nuclear talks, it has simultaneously blamed the United States for attacks on its people and financial system.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is being savaged by Republican opponents for appearing weak on Iran, despite warnings that any interference with international traffic through the Straits of Hormuz "will not be tolerated." When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the killing of the Iranian scientist and stated that Washington had played no role in his killing, former Senator and current presidential candidate Rick Santorum stated bluntly that the condemnation was a mistake. Santorum, along with fellow presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, have all taken a much harder line on Iran than the White House and, along with Israel's most right-wing supporters in the United States, are goading the administration to be tougher on Iran, even to the point of launching a military strike against its nuclear facilities.
Given the fragility of the U.S. economy, which seems just on the cusp of recovery, the Obama administration does not want a war with Iran. But the president cannot control or predict Iranian behavior. A truly provocative act by Iran - such as the sinking of a U.S. warship - would force Obama's hand, especially in an election year, but he must nevertheless resist the temptation to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. This could only be justified if Iran had provided unambiguous evidence that it was determined to develop a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, international support for war would likely be forthcoming.
Geoffrey Kemp is a Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.