Iranian Imbroglio

Tensions are rising after a confrontation between Iranian military speedboats and American warships in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday. Will the incident have serious implications for U.S. policy in the Middle East?

What happened yesterday in the Persian Gulf, and what are some of the possible consequences?

"It is a potentially seminal act-if indeed the Iranian gunboats threatened to blow themselves up against U.S. warships", says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center. Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, told Al-Jazeera he had a copy of the recording and that he was considering whether to release it. This would be important, says Kemp, otherwise we end up with a "he said, she said" situation where the United States might not automatically receive the benefit of the doubt.

Why would the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who are usually kept under a strict system of discipline, carry out such an act? A reminder to the world of why Iran matters (and a provocation to keep oil prices high)? The incident took place at a key chokepoint for the Persian Gulf. It never hurts to remember that nearly 40 percent of the world's oil passes through this point-and if the Gulf were to be blocked, even temporarily, it would be a major strain on the global economy-since more than half of India's oil supply and almost all of the oil used by Japan and South Korea comes from the Gulf. But whether these states would want more forceful U.S. action to rein in the Iranians, or will see Washington as a dysfunctional Persian Gulf hegemon imperiling their own prosperity remains to be seen.

Politics? President Bush begins a visit to the Middle East later this week, and Iranians will go to the polls later this year. Cliff Kupchan, a director at the Eurasia Group, notes, "The Iranian action was likely a shot across the bow of Bush's trip, intended to remind Gulf countries that bolstering ties with the U.S. entails risks. A second explanation is that the Iranian government seeks to increase public fears of the threat from the United States in advance of March parliamentary elections. This would strengthen national security-oriented hard-liners. Since the election of Ahmadinejad, Iran has been generally risk-acceptant in foreign policy, and willing to use provocation to rally domestic support."

What does this mean for U.S. policy? Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, concludes: "The most recent near-skirmish between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz is, among other things, a useful barometer of the disarray now plaguing U.S. Iran policy. These days, the consensus view in Washington is that the Bush Administration has embraced a ‘containment' strategy toward the Islamic Republic. Whether such an approach can actually work is a different matter, and one that is now the subject of considerable debate in policy circles. But, as the naval incident illustrates all too well, there can be no ‘containment' to speak of if one side acts antagonistically and the other does not push back. That, in and of itself, is a recipe for future such provocations."

And with other major powers-India and China among them-maintaining and extending their ties with Tehran, stronger sanctions unilaterally imposed by Washington-even with the support of some European states-may not bring sufficient pressure to bear. Once again, all of this does not bode well for America's attempt to rein in Iran.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.