The last time things were this tense in the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. and Iranian militaries began shooting (more out of miscalculation than intent), and the bitter aftermath still looms large over Washington’s relations with Tehran. U.S. ships were in the Persian Gulf to protect Iraq-bound oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq war; but in 1987, an Iraqi fighter plane misidentified the frigate USS Stark as an Iranian tanker and fired missiles, killing 37 sailors. The next year, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit an Iranian mine, and the Navy retaliated by destroying two Iranian oil platforms, the largest U.S. surface engagement since World War II. Three months later, an American ship mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for a warplane and shot it down, killing 290 civilians.
Today, Iran again threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz and target U.S. warships. Saber-rattling exercises planned by both sides in the coming months may reap more unintended consequences. This time, though, the stakes are even higher. Either the chief state sponsor of terrorism could acquire a nuclear weapon in the next 18 months or it could be stopped by another war that further destabilizes the Middle East and disrupts global oil supplies.
A direct military confrontation between Iran and the West—the United States and/or Israel—is likelier today than at any time in more than two decades. Strategic and political logic, the threat of a nuclear weapon, and divergent perceptions are driving the key players toward conflict. If nothing changes, these dynamics could propel them over the red lines that each country has drawn, and decision makers might conclude that a conflict has more benefits than costs.
“The Iranian regime already sees itself engaged in an undeclared war with the United States and its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia,” says Kenneth Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Tehran understandably blames its enemies for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists over the past year; for the Stuxnet worm that has infected Iran’s uranium-enrichment computers; for a recent unexplained explosion at an Iranian missile factory; and for covert support to anti-regime opposition groups, Pollack says. “We shouldn’t be surprised that Iran is fighting back with plots such as the recent attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. There’s no question in my mind that the current crisis could escalate very quickly.”
Indeed, recent events have only reinforced the logic of conflict for each of the key players. From Tehran’s perspective, new U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank and a European Union proposal to block Iranian oil imports have already caused a major devaluation of Iran’s currency and a spike in inflation that could cripple its economy. The regime also fears that upcoming parliamentary elections will reignite the protests that followed the rigged presidential election in 2009. However risky, starting a skirmish might divide U.N. Security Council members currently united behind sanctions—and allow the regime to stoke nationalism at home.
Tehran is “making provocative statements about closing the Straits of Hormuz to demonstrate power at home, and to wage psychological warfare against the U.S. and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf,” says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “I worry, however, that the regime may be tempted into taking it a step too far, such as mining the strait, which would be foolish and dangerous.” One of those provocations was Iran’s announcement this weekend that it had begun uranium enrichment at the Fordo nuclear site, which is housed in a heavily defended and hardened underground bunker near the holy city of Qom. That could put a key component of Iran’s nuclear program beyond the reach of the Israeli military.
From Israel’s perspective, the declaration was yet another indication that Tehran has decided to “go all the way” toward building a nuclear weapon, says Israeli retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, a former deputy national security adviser in Jerusalem. “That brings Israel closer to a decision: Whether to initiate an attack on this program, or whether to accept we cannot stop it,” said Brom, now an analyst at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish prime minister steering an Iran-phobic electorate, is not inclined to accept a fait accompli.
In Washington, President Obama is already taking significant fire from Republican presidential candidates for not confronting Tehran more aggressively. A number of senior military leaders also believe that the moment is fast approaching when the administration will have to back up its unequivocal statements that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, according to a senior military source. Iranian provocations—to say nothing of open conflict—could tip the balance in favor of a U.S. or Israeli military strike.
The key question is “how long the window of opportunity for action would stay open,” according to Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “As Iran’s nuclear program continues to cross these thresholds, the window starts closing more quickly, which changes the calculus for both the United States and Israel. If Iran then provokes a conflict in the Strait of Hormuz, then suddenly the cost-benefit calculus for President Obama really shifts. The temptation to use that opportunity to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will be strong.” Meaning that the likelihood of conflict is rising, not sinking.
Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.