Temperatures in the Persian Gulf reached a record high of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) recently. However, it is not only the weather that forebodes ill. American and Iranian troops stationed in the region are on edge and tension that has been escalating in the past few weeks is now at a peak.The taut nerves on both sides were evidenced earlier this week [Monday, July 16] when A U.S. Navy ship opened fire on a fishing boat off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, just a step away from Iran's territorial waters, killing a person aboard the vessel and injuring three others, after it ignored warnings not to approach. Apparently, the American Navy gunners mistakenly took it to be an Iranian Revolution Guards vessel.
The incident occurred against the backdrop of growing Iranian threats to block off the [strategic] Strait of Hormuz if harsher sanctions are imposed on Tehran. The threats, such as those voiced [last] week by the chairman of Iran’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, [General Hasan Firuzabadi,] who announced that Iran had "a smart plan to close the Strait of Hormuz," are designed to drive home the message that Iran has the operational capability to block off the Strait of Hormuz in any future military confrontation. However, if Iran blocks free passage through the Strait of Hormuz, the United States will most likely retaliate by hitting Tehran's offshore assets in the Persian Gulf. In fact, it is quite possible that the Americans will take advantage of "tactic" events in the Gulf to expand the battle field and attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Since spring, the Americans have been rushing [significant] military reinforcements into the Gulf, primarily U.S. naval forces. The U.S. Navy has doubled the number of its minesweepers in the region and it is scheduled to conduct in September the largest mine-sweeping maneuver ever held in the Gulf. The U.S. Navy [converted] the amphibious [transport and docking] ship, the Ponce, which has been moved into the Gulf, where it may serve as an operational center for mine-sweeping tasks, as well as a floating staging base for special operations forces dispatched on a variety of missions in the Gulf.
In addition, the deployment of an integral system for intercepting Iranian ground-to-ground missiles is nearing completion these days. (The system's radar, similar to that stationed in Israel and Turkey, is to be located in Qatar.) Besides, F-22 stealth aircrafts have been moved to two different [American] bases in the Persian Gulf to reinforce at least two US aircraft carriers cruising in the Gulf.The [high] alert on both sides gives rise to concerns that Iran and the United States are liable to be involuntarily dragged into potential escalation over the Strait of Hormuz, and that any tactic incident would then evolve into a major [strategic] event with far-reaching repercussions on the world economy and the stability in the region.
The U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf is designed first and foremost to deter Iran from blocking the Strait of Hormuz in response to harsher sanctions imposed on Tehran, specifically the European Union oil embargo that went into effect at the beginning of July. Following imposition of the EU embargo, Iran announced that it intended to anchor in legislation its right to block off the Strait of Hormuz. In another defiant move, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards held a large-scale military maneuver in the course of which dozens of missiles were launched towards targets close to the Strait of Hormuz.
While Iran has previously conducted such maneuvers as a matter of routine, the recent maneuvers may testify to its deeper sense of vulnerability, which may be attributed to the crisis in Syria, Tehran’s closest ally in the Middle East, and to the impasse apparently reached in the talks with the powers on Iran's nuclear program.
Iran is no doubt well aware that any obstruction, even if temporary, of the free passage through the Strait of Hormuz would inevitably lead to military confrontation. Furthermore, following previous [Iranian] threats to block off the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a direct message to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warning that any attempt on the part of Iran to restrict free international navigation would be regarded as "crossing a red line" and entail due reaction by the United States.
The American [military] deployment in the region is aimed not only to deter Iran but also to signal to the Gulf States, as well as to Israel, that the United States is indeed taking into consideration other options besides diplomacy and economic sanctions. The scenario much talked of in recent years, whereby successive waves of Israeli Air Force squadrons are attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, does not seem to be the most relevant scenario any more. Indeed, under the circumstances, the prospect of a flare-up in the Persian Gulf that could quickly escalate into an American assault against Iran appears to be at present much more plausible.
The author is a researcher at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).