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U.S.-Iran Naval Skirmish on the Horizon?

I’ve long argued that wars in the Middle East are caused not by oil or water, but by overconfidence. In 1948, 1967, and 1973, Israel’s neighbors convinced themselves they were poised to strike a decisive blow to the Jewish state; the region is still picking up the pieces.

Likewise, after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah commented that if he had known how Israel would have reacted when he sought to kidnap Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side of the border, he never would have given the go-ahead for the operation.

While a symptom of Bush Derangement Syndrome was a bizarre, conspiratorial belief the United States was plotting war with Iran, the truth of the matter is  any American military action against Iran will more likely be reactive than pro-active. Iranian small boats probing and buzzing past American ships in international waters in the Persian Gulf are a near-daily occurrence. Crewmen have seconds if less to determine whether an Iranian small boat is simply harassing them or intent on conducting a U.S.S. Cole-style bombing. If Iran pushes past American redlines or simply misunderstands where they are, both countries might find themselves slipping down the slope to at least a skirmish if not a broader conflict.

During the Bush administration, the Pentagon put forward a plan to establish a “red phone” link in order to de-escalate any crisis before it spun out of control. Alas, the Iranians rejected the proposal after the State Department spoke of “The Gulf” rather than “the Persian Gulf,” and so the two sides continue to act and react without any means to pull back from a crisis before it begins.

Against this backdrop, the Supreme Leader’s visit to Bandar Abbas this past weekend is especially worrisome. The Iranian press has published photos of his visit to the navy base. My colleague Ali Alfoneh has sketched out a rough translation of Ayatollah Khameini’s remarks:

The benefits of these seas belong to the nations and both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy are the symbols of the might of the Iranian nation in defending the interest of the country in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman… In the past, the regimes rebelling against God prevented sea faring and naval presence of Iran in regional and international waters, but today you must – through your added struggle – make up for a long era of backwardness… Today, the conditions are very different than in the past. The long shores of this region are controlled by an independent government. An awake and proud nation which is aware of its national resolve and by trusting in God will impose its will upon any political and military power and will force him to retreat…

Khamenei spoke against the backdrop of the return of an Iranian submarine which had made headlines earlier this year when it transited the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean. President Obama may want to engage Iran, but he and his advisers should recognize that what they themselves see as goodwill, Iran may see as weakness to be probed. Unless Obama firmly and repeatedly defines the red lines to Iranian behavior, he may actually hasten conflict rather than prevent it.