Is military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran just days away?
Judging from recent events, a naval showdown appears to be a growing possibility. Eleven American warships, led by the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, transited the Suez Canal on Friday, en route to the Red Sea. Operating in that area, the Truman battle group would be in position to intercept an Iranian "aid" vessel, heading towards the canal and (eventually) the Israeli blockade line off the Gaza coast.
Regional press accounts indicate the Truman and her escorts passed through the Suez Canal while the waterway was closed to other traffic. At least one Israeli naval vessel has also transited the canal during recent days, though it is operating independently of the American battle group.
The Iranian vessel, renamed Toward Gaza, was supposed to set sail last week. There have been no updated reports on its location, but it's virtually certain that the Pentagon is tracking the ship. With more than 60 aircraft in its embarked air wing--and access to the full resources of the intelligence community--the Truman battle group can monitor traffic across thousands of square miles of ocean and intercept the vessel well before it enters the Red Sea.
But there is actually some doubt the confrontation will actually occur. Originally, Tehran threatened to send military escorts along with the aid ship, but that vow never materialized. Iran's Navy--both the "regular" fleet and the Revolutionary Guards component--are the weakest branches of the nation's military, with no power projection capabilities beyond the Strait of Hormuz. Late last week, an IRGC spokesman said his organization had no plans to accompany the aid ship on its voyage. For now, Toward Gaza appears to be on its own.
And, the Iranian vessel may have more to worry about than the U.S. Navy. A Pentagon spokesman notes that pirates are active along Gaza's projected route, and its a safe bet that no western navy would come to its rescue. On the other hand, many of the pirates who operate in those waters are Muslim, and Iran may have greased regional religious skids to improve prospects for a safe voyage.
Still, there are plenty of ways to detain and harass Toward Gaza. Assuming we let the vessel proceed (a prospect deemed very unlikely), Egyptian officials could delay the ship's passage through the Suez Canal, demanding that the ship's papers be translated from Farsi into Arabic, a process that could take weeks or even months, depending on how much pressure is exerted on the Cairo government.
Indeed, given the obstacles facing the Iranian aid ship, there's a very real possibility that it might be recalled, or conveniently break down at a friendly port along the way. Tehran may want to avoid the humiliation of its vessel being towed to an Egyptian port (by a U.S. naval vessel), where it might languish indefinitely.
On the other hand, Iran does have options for creating an international incident, despite the overwhelming show of American naval might. The Iranians might attempt to scuttle the vessel or blow it up (preferably with our boarding parties on the ship), then blame the event on the U.S. military. Or, Tehran might retaliate with naval provocations or attacks in the Persian Gulf, under the cover of friendly aircraft, anti-ship missiles and potential "swarm" attacks by IRGC suicide units.
The potential confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is a long way from being resolved, and no one can say exactly how it will end. But so far, the Obama Administration is taking the right steps, responding to the aid vessel's voyage with deployment of vastly superior forces. To some, that might seem like overkill; afterall, Mr. Obama's Defense Secretary has recently observed that the U.S. is "over matched" against potential foes, suggesting there might be room for potential cutbacks.
But in a situation like this, overkill is the right answer. Faced with a U.S. carrier battle group in the Red Sea, Tehran is already re-examining its options, and may ultimately decide to fore go a confrontation, at least for now.
Still, a military showdown with Iran is probably inevitable, given Tehran's perceptions of American weakness, and its stated goal to "wipe Israel off the map." The Iranians may be about to blink in the Arabian Sea, but they won't blink forever. If anything, a potential setback on the "aid" mission will send them back to the drawing board, looking for new ways to confront the United States and further test our resolve.