Tensions between the U.S. and Iran increased dramatically over the weekend, with word that the Pentagon is deploying Patriot missile batteries to four allied nations in the Persian Gulf--and Iran's claim that it will deliver a "telling blow" to western powers on February 11th.
According to various media reports, Patriot battalions will be deployed to Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, presumably in the coming days. Military officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the move is aimed at deterring a possible Iranian missile attack and reassuring key allies in the region. The U.S. also plans to keep two missile defense vessels in the region, further bolstering our intercept capabilities.
The deployment (supposedly) signals a tougher approach towards Tehran by the Obama Administration. After years of failed diplomatic overtures, the White House is now working on tougher sanctions against the Iranian regime. That raises the potential threat faced by U.S. forces in the Gulf, and partners in the region.
For its part, Iran is promising a harsh blow against "global arrogance" during next week's anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made that vow during a cabinet meeting on Sunday. He did not specify what Iran might do, but some analysts believe there might be an announcement related to the nation's nuclear program.
But the sudden military moves (and renewed bluster) raise a rather obvious question: what's so different this time around? The U.S. sold early-model Patriot batteries to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait following the first Gulf War, and recently concluded a deal to deliver the advanced THAAD system to the UAE.
Likewise, talks about creating a regional missile shield--in reaction to the Iranian threat--have been underway for some time. U.S. officials are trying to depict the Patriot deployment as part of that plan, but the timing is a bit curious, to say the least.
After all, grandiose claims from Tehran are anything but new. In recent years, Iran claimed to have developed an "advanced" fighter aircraft and "stealth" missile, in an apparent effort to embellish its military capabilities. Unfortunately for the Iranians, that "modern" fighter was actually a 40-year-old, U.S.-built F-5, re-engineered to include a second vertical stabilizer and slightly updated avionics.
As for the stealth missile, it was a standard Iran design, coated with radar-absorbent paint. U.S. analysts say that much of the paint peeled off during flight, but that didn't deter Tehran's propaganda machine. So, it would be very easy to dismiss Ahmadinejad's claims as nothing more than exaggeration, if not an outright fabrication.
Still, it's not standard procedure for the U.S. to dispatch Patriot batteries (and Aegis vessels) to the Persian Gulf, based solely on the boasts of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Clearly, other factors are at work in this equation, factors that go beyond President Obama's failed outreach effort to Tehran, regional plans to bolster missile defense and vague threats from the Iranian leader.
For starters, Iran may be planning some sort of major announcement or display related to its nuclear efforts. It's worth remembering that Tehran is now inside the window when some experts believed that the Islamic Republic would be capable of producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear device, or even fabricating a crude weapon. While such assessments do not represent a consensus within western intelligence agencies, there is little doubt that Iran is steadily advancing in its nuclear work and previous claims that Tehran halted its weaponization program were little more than fiction.
Additionally, late winter marks the time of year when Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) traditionally holds a major missile exercise. In years past, the IRGC has used the event to demonstrate new systems and test operational procedures. Five years ago, the IRGC managed to elude western ISR systems, deploying missiles to field sites near the Persian Gulf. Those locations were not detected until well after the exercise ended, raising concerns about Iran's ability to launch a "bolt from the blue" against our military forces in Iraq, or U.S. allies in the region.
Tehran's skills in ballistic missile denial and deception (D&D) have advanced in recent years, creating new worries for military planners. So, if Iran was considering some sort of provocation during the upcoming exercise--and we're worried about our ability to track mobile missile units--it makes sense to upgrade our defenses before the drill begins.
But the most likely scenario may also be the most ominous. Israel has long warned that the window for action against Iran's nuclear program is closing, and closing rapidly. Has the U.S. received word that the Israelis are planning to strike Tehran's nuclear facilities, or detected preparations that an attack is in the offing? An Israeli strike would certainly trigger an Iranian response, including attacks on U.S. targets (and our allies) in the Gulf.
As we've noted in the past, a long-range strike by the IAF would almost certainly occur at night, during periods of little or no lunar illumination. Interestingly enough, the next "new moon" phase in Iran begins on February 10th and continues through the middle of the month--the same period when Ahmadeinjad is promising that decisive blow.
Coincidence? We'll find out in the coming days.
ADDENDUM: The Patriot deployment was foreshadowed by the leader of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus. In a speech eleven days ago, Petraeus noted that countries in the region are concerned about Iran becoming a "dominant" regional power. He also said that Tehran is viewed as a "serious threat" by other countries in the region.
Meanwhile, White House officials have emphasized the "deterrence" and "reassuring" qualities of the missile deployment. But there's little doubt that the Patriot batteries heading for the region would also be useful in a "worst case" scenario as well.