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Iran: Calculus Changing for the “Force Option”?

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.