US and Iran inch closer to military conflict

The likelihood of military conflict between the United States and Iran is higher now than at any time in more than two decades, military analysts say, as tensions continue to escalate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and blustery rhetoric.

While full-blown war might not be on the immediate horizon, the conditions for military skirmishes are as ripe as they’ve been since 1988, when Iran laid mines against U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and the United States destroyed Iranian oil platforms in response.

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“The probability of armed conflict between the United States and Iran is higher now than at any point since 1988, and the risk will only increase over the coming year as Iran’s nuclear program continues to develop,” said Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The recent incidents between Iran and the West provide a new backdrop for U.S. policy as Congress returns to the Capitol Tuesday and the 2012 presidential election season heats up. 

The House Armed Services Committee is holding a closed-door briefing Wednesday on Iran, according to committee officials.

The presidential race has been poised to be an election on domestic issues and the economy, but Iran could change the political calculus. The tensions also could threaten the foreign-policy record President Obama has built  during his first three years, if Iran were to execute a former U.S. Marine it has sentenced to death, for instance, or if Israel launched a unilateral strike.

“Iran can change the subject,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Obama may want to make this about domestic issues, and the Republicans may want to make this about domestic issues — the Iranians can certainly throw a wrench into that.”

Tensions between Iran and the West ratcheted up considerably last month after Iran threatened to close down the Strait of Hormuz in response to potential economic sanctions from the United States and European Union. 

The United States said it would stop any attempt to close the strait — a narrow but vital oil passageway in the Persian Gulf — prompting Iran to tell U.S. ships to leave the Gulf. 

In the past week, relations between the United States and Iran were strained further after Iran sentenced former Marine Amir Hekmati to death for allegedly spying for the CIA. The United States condemned the sentence and said it was untrue. 

Two days later, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated after a motorcyclist placed a bomb under his car. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused the United States and Israel of being behind the killing, which the United States denied and Israel has not commented on.

At the heart of the dispute with Iran is its nuclear program, which Iran says is to produce energy and the West warns is an attempt to build a nuclear weapon. 

Speaking to soldiers Thursday at Fort Bliss in Texas, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the United States is keeping all its options on the table, including military ones.

“Clearly there are those areas that for us are red lines,” Panetta said. “Number one, we cannot allow them to develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line. Number two, we cannot tolerate Iran blocking the Straits of Hormuz.”

The United States issued a warning directly to Khamenei that Iran should not close the Strait of Hormuz, according to published reports.

The United States and Israel decided on Sunday to postpone a joint military exercise that was planned for the spring, in a move some Israeli officials said was to de-escalate tensions with Iran, according to Israeli media.

U.S. officials told The Hill, however, that the postponement had nothing to do with concerns about Iran.

“There were a variety of factors at play in this case, but leaders from both sides believe that optimum participation by all units is best achieved later in the year,” said Capt. John Ross, a spokesman for the U.S. European Command.

The prospect of an Israeli strike against Iran to stop its nuclear program has risen as Iran has continued its nuclear production and moved uranium enrichment underground. 

Obama spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is traveling to Israel this week to meet with Israeli officials.

Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank, said the prospect of a unilateral attack on Iran remains a divisive issue inside Israel. “The idea of going unilaterally is definitely thought of as a last-resort option,” Berti said in an email. 

Barring an Israeli strike or other major change in the situation, Rubin said that the United States is not going to get into a full-fledged war with Iran similar to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When it comes to an incident, however, in which we shoot at the Iranians and they shoot back at us, I think that’s getting increasingly likely,” Rubin said. “And that could lead to a slippery slope.”

There are deterrents to stop Iran from continuing to escalate tensions. Iran’s economy is highly dependent on oil exports, so closing the Strait of Hormuz would amount to an economic death sentence. 

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to the Pentagon, said the most plausible scenario is that Iran pushes in small steps to drive up oil prices and emphasize its ability to make threats “without triggering the kind of clash with the U.S. that could cost it its Air Force and military production facilities and a whole range of other targets.”

Iran’s domestic elections are coming up in March, with the potential to further upend Iran’s domestic stability, hampered by a devaluing of its currency due to economic sanctions. Analysts say that Iran could try to create a crisis to tap into the public’s 

nationalist sentiment.

“It would be foolish to assume, given the power struggles in Iran, that everyone there is going to behave like a rational bargainer,” Cordesman said.