from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

A U.S.-Iran Naval Clash Is Not Inevitable

July 27, 2012

U.S. Navy handout photo of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy Reuters).
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The headline of today’s Washington Post reads, "Iran Expands Ability to Strike U.S. Navy in Gulf." The piece describes Persian Gulf war games, paranoid comments by regional officials, and hollow threats from Iranian officials.

By now, when an Iranian official threatens the United States, we should call it what it is: ritual. Just yesterday, an anonymous official warned, "If the Americans’ futile cyber attacks do not stop, it will face a teeth-breaking response." While novel dental threats might now be part of Iran’s asymmetric defensive strategy, Western media elevates such blustery rhetoric to the headline news, rewarding the Iranian regime with the strategic communications coup that it desperately seeks. As a State Department spokesperson noted last month with refreshing honesty: "The Venezuelans make lots of extravagant claims. So do the Iranians."

When reading about the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf or the serial threats from Iran, it is worth keeping two things in mind.

First, as Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, then-chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), stated in February, “The [DIA] assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.” In other words, the government of Iran is not looking to start a war with the United States. This is a smart call, given that the Iranian defense budget of $9 billion is less than 2 percent of the U.S. military budget of $553 billion. Iran fared poorly in its clash with the U.S. Navy in April 1988—and it would face a similar fate today.

Second, short of a third party launching a preemptive strike, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. and Iranian navies will fight each other. In March, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, described the Iranian navy as “professional and courteous.” Last month, Admiral Greenert echoed his earlier characterization, adding, " They have been…committing to the rules of the road—I’m talking about the Iranian navy. We have had some time before when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has tended to maybe close a little too close for that. But frankly, that hasn’t happened recently. And when I say ‘recently,’ I’d say in the last couple of months." After a U.S. Navy fleet replenishment oiler fired on an Indian fishing vessel earlier this month, a U.S. official went to great lengths to say, "I can’t emphasize enough this has nothing to do with Iran."

The most likely instigator of an outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Iran would be an Israeli attack on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. U.S. intelligence officials do not believe that they will receive prior warning of such an attack on Iran, as Tel Aviv has never done so in the past. Last month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey described a potential Israeli strike as "destabilizing.” He continued, “I wouldn’t suggest, sitting here today, that we’ve persuaded them that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion.”

At present, senior U.S. officials are more concerned about a bolt-from-the-blue Israeli attack of Iran than ever before. The revolving door of Obama administration officials heading to Israel underscores a position revealed recently by David Sanger: "The core of the American argument [to Israel] was simple: attack Iran, and you set the program back a few years, but you solve nothing. ’We wanted to make it abundantly clear that an attack would just drive the program more underground’ [said one U.S. official]."

When you read front-page headlines like "Soaring Tension in the Gulf," it is important to remember that both the United States and Iran have no intention of going to war. However, the critical—and unresolved—question is when might Israel take military action against Iran, and what would be the subsequent costs and consequences for U.S. military and national interests in the region? Despite a decade of U.S.-Israeli dialogue on the Iranian nuclear program, no one knows the answers.