Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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

by Micah Zenko
July 27, 2012

U.S. Navy handout photo of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Navy handout photo of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy Reuters).


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.

Post a Comment 14 Comments

  • Posted by hass

    One way tensions can be reduced is if the US stops parking its fleet off of Iran’s coastline whilst declaring that attacking Iran is a option on the table. How would we react if the Iranians did that to us? Who is really threatening whom here?

  • Posted by JDavis

    The difference in military expenditures isn’t all that relevant. Iran will be fighting a war off their own shores with everything they’ve got, while we’ll be fighting half way around the world with a fraction of our forces. Besides, our expenditures are vastly inflated. I doubt that Iran would spend 300 million to perfect a single conventional bomb, or over 2 billion for a plane to deliver it. They’ve most likely spent their money on buying plutonium from North Korea for those MIRV missiles they introduced six years ago. What are we going to do when those fireworks start popping off? Do we have a plan for Armageddon?

  • Posted by AEE

    I agree with Hass. This has never been about Iran’s nuclear program. We keep hearing that the sanctions are in place to get the Iranians to the negotiating table but when they are there, the US tries its best to make sure the negotiations fail. So what is it, is it regime change or is it just a ruse by Israel to divert attention from their land grab? Israel will not attack on its own. It knows the consequences. It wants to provoke a fight between the US and Iran.
    The best policy would be for the US to move out of the Persian Gulf and tell Israel to go ahead and attack. See what happens. But then I can see the US congress shitting in their pants to get US armed forces back in the picture.

  • Posted by Aaron

    Very true, we have an aggressor who justifies their actions on the pretense of defending the world yet it’s sole objective is to seek the resources of the region. Iran is a red line that cannot be crossed, for it will greatly create instability in the world.

  • Posted by Michael

    I tend to disagree with most of what CFR does and says (based on personal observations of CFR activities in Bahrain), but this article is spot on. The U.S. and Iran have nothing to gain by going to war with each other.

    The only point I might add is that an Israeli strike on Persian nuclear facilities would give Ahmadinejad exactly what he wants: an excuse to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. And, quite frankly, it would be justified and deserved.

  • Posted by Eli

    It’s funny how we treat countries that want to be independent and expect them to follow our orders, and if they don’t all options are on the table including making their innocent people die from starvation with our sanctions, assassinating their scientists, destroying their infrastructures,…
    that’s why those towers were hit to give us a lesson, but we are too arrogant to understand that.
    bunch of kids with big guns.

  • Posted by JDavis

    Why do you even have a comment box if you’re not going to post more than one comment?

  • Posted by TinnituscuremanTcm

    They are all just pawns in a bigger game.

  • Posted by StarChaser

    I’ve been following this “Iranian situation” for a little over a year. I wholeheartedly believe that a “Nuclear Iran” would not totally be a bad thing.I mean no government is sucidal to a point where they obtain weapons and then use them only to be wiped off the map the next day. Israel is like the little bully on the playground causing ruckus because he knows his big brother (US) will step in. I agree with Michael the US should back off and tell Israel to do what they think best and see if they still have the nerve to attack.

  • Posted by ash

    dear friends,this has nothing to do with nuclear programme or regime change, the main objective for the zionists is to weaken all islamic countries so it could fulfill its agenda,ARRIVAL OF THE DAJJAL, GOOGLE IT

  • Posted by Ali

    I do not think that US engage in a war which will burn the region .
    Moreover why US should enter a war while is selling its firearms to Iran’s neighbours ? As an example Saudi Arabia bough hundreds of tanks from Germany just few months ago .
    This is an enterprise played shrewdly by US and its ally Israel . They overstate Iran’s menace while Iran does not have any nuclear bomb and Israel has hundreds of this minatory bomb .
    Iranian military capability is incomparable with that in Iraq or Afghanistan and Iranian people are intrinsically attentive to their homeland’s security against any foreign assault . regardless of any regime ruling in Iran , Iranian people never accept the foreign intervention ; as we saw this fact in Iran-Iraq war .
    United States need an instrument named Iran in order to intensify its influence in Middle East and Israel also needs something to ally the world in its favour and whitewash all the wrongdoings which has done so far .
    Another striking discussion about the US-Iran probable war is the security of the regional countries such as Emirates , Saudi Arabia , Azerbaijan and maybe Turkey which most probably will not be able to retain themselves secure from the probable attacks because , I believe that in any war against Iran , the avenge will also be taken from US allies .
    And at the end I would like to mention that the Israelis high ranking officials based on their devastation by Iranian nuclear bomb is out and out false because I assure you that if Iran gains atomic bomb then , it will never waste it recklessly .
    ALI / IRAN

  • Posted by Anonymous

    As kids , In school we were taught in class about history, History in the United States of America and history of around the world.
    And in the back of my mind,when I read an article like this I can remember how good we had it then and how good life could be now. I could also remember that quote kids in my classroom would say to each other that famous quote. “Peace In The Middle East”. It has been a burden then and so it is today in this day and age. What progress has been made? Absolutely none. Live in tranquility and compassion is what’s needed. There is no other option.

  • Posted by C. Nna-Emeka Okereke

    The contents of this article are as clear and logical as possible. The war game between Israel and Iran will most certainly destabilize the security situation in the Middle East. For one Israeli officials are primarily concerned about the security of the State of Israel especially with the history of President Ahmadinejad public statements of aggression against Israel. However, it is apparently clear that any pre-emptive strike against Iran could have collateral damage despite the obvious reliance on cyber warfare. I am even skeptical if the UN Security Council could prevent the decline to conflict between the 2 regional powers in the Middle East. Another certainty is that other countries in region could give a sigh of relief if the Iranian threat is reduced if not eliminated.

  • Posted by Mike

    If Iran were lay down its arms, there would be peace with Israel. If Israel were to lay down their arms, there would be no more Israel. It’s clear to every neutral observer who the threat to peace is.

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