The United States reportedly sent a letter to Iran via multiple intermediaries last week warning Tehran that any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz constituted a red line for Washington. The same week, a chemist associated with Iran's nuclear program was killed in Tehran. In Ankara, Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani met with Turkish officials and has been floating hints of flexibility in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
This week, a routine rotation of U.S. aircraft carriers is taking place in the Middle East, with the potential for three carrier strike groups to be on station in the U.S. Fifth Fleet's area of operations and a fourth carrier strike group based in Japan about a week's transit from the region. Next week, Gen. Michael Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will travel to Israel to meet with senior Israeli officials. And Iran is scheduling another set of war games in the Persian Gulf for February that will focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' irregular tactics for closing the Strait of Hormuz.
While tensions are escalating in the Persian Gulf, the financial crisis in Europe has continued, with downgrades in France's credit rating the latest blow. Meanwhile, China continued its struggle to maintain exports in the face of economic weakness among its major customers while inflation continued to increase the cost of Chinese exports.
Fundamental changes in how Europe and China work and their long-term consequences represent the major systemic shifts in the international system. In the more immediate future, however, the U.S.-Iranian dynamic has the most serious potential consequences for the world.
The U.S.-Iranian Dynamic
The increasing tensions in the region are not unexpected. As we have argued for some time, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent decision to withdraw created a massive power vacuum in Iraq that Iran needed -- and was able -- to fill. Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in the 1980s that caused about 1 million Iranian casualties, and Iran's fundamental national interest is assuring that no Iraqi regime able to threaten Iranian national security re-emerges. The U.S. invasion and withdrawal from Iraq provided Iran an opportunity to secure its western frontier, one it could not pass on.
If Iran does come to have a dominant influence in Iraq -- and I don't mean Iran turning Iraq into a satellite -- several things follow. Most important, the status of the Arabian Peninsula is subject to change. On paper, Iran has the most substantial conventional military force of any nation in the Persian Gulf. Absent outside players, power on paper is not insignificant. While technologically sophisticated, the military strength of the Arabian Peninsula nations on paper is much smaller, and they lack the Iranian military's ideologically committed manpower.
But Iran's direct military power is more the backdrop than the main engine of Iranian power. It is the strength of Tehran's covert capabilities and influence that makes Iran significant. Iran's covert intelligence capability is quite good. It has spent decades building political alliances by a range of means, and not only by nefarious methods. The Iranians have worked among the Shia, but not exclusively so; they have built a network of influence among a range of classes and religious and ethnic groups. And they have systematically built alliances and relationships with significant figures to counter overt U.S. power. With U.S. military power departing Iraq, Iran's relationships become all the more valuable.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces has had a profound psychological impact on the political elites of the Persian Gulf. Since the decline of British power after World War II, the United States has been the guarantor of the Arabian Peninsula's elites and therefore of the flow of oil from the region. The foundation of that guarantee has been military power, as seen in the response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The United States still has substantial military power in the Persian Gulf, and its air and naval forces could likely cope with any overt provocation by Iran.
But that's not how the Iranians operate. For all their rhetoric, they are cautious in their policies. This does not mean they are passive. It simply means that they avoid high-risk moves. They will rely on their covert capabilities and relationships. Those relationships now exist in an environment in which many reasonable Arab leaders see a shift in the balance of power, with the United States growing weaker and less predictable in the region and Iran becoming stronger. This provides fertile soil for Iranian allies to pressure regional regimes into accommodations with Iran.
The Syrian Angle
Events in Syria compound this situation. The purported imminent collapse of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria has proved less imminent than many in the West imagined. At the same time, the isolation of the al Assad regime by the West -- and more important, by other Arab countries -- has created a situation where the regime is more dependent than ever on Iran.