Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Catastrophe Avoided

On Sunday, five IRGC patrol boats swarmed US warships in the Straits of Hormuz and radioed a threat to blow the US ships. The commander of US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) characterized the behavior of IRGC naval personnel as “unduly provocative." The Pentagon later released a video tape that appeared to confirm its version of the incident. The Iranian government insisted that no such threats had been made and accused the Pentagon of “clumsily fabricating” the evidence. The Pentagon dismissed as “absurd” the claim that it has faked the video and audio recording.

The seriousness and the enormity of the incident began to be felt throughout the region. Saudi Arabia urged restraint. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal told reporters, “We face the danger of an escalation, and restraint by all players in the region is necessary.”

The latest incident between Iran and the US occurred on the eve of President Bush’s trip to the region. In fact the President was already in Israel when the Pentagon issued a stern warning that it is prepared to use force if its warships are threatened again. Later this week the president will work his way down the Gulf visiting Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia. In UAE he will be a short distance away from where the naval incident occurred. A number of Iran analysts believe that the leadership in Tehran regarded Bush’s extensive travel in the area as a provocation and an attempt to build an anti-Iran coalition. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei during a speech on Thursday in Yazd called President Bush the “embodiment of evil.” This is a language not used by Iranian leaders in a very long time.

It was in this hostile atmosphere, partly triggered by President Bush’s trip to the region that the tense naval standoff between the US Navy and IRGC patrol boats occurred. The incident, as the Saudis pointed out, did have and still does have the potential of escalating into something much bigger and much more dangerous.

The current government in Tehran cherishes open confrontation with the US. President Ahmadinejad has just two months to maintain the pro-government majority in Majlis during the upcoming parliamentary elections. Such confrontations with the “enemy” would distract public’s attention from the severe economic problems facing the nation and might help Ahmadinejad in rallying the public in “defense” of the motherland.

But this time the IRGC might have gone few hundred yards too far. The Pentagon has said the next time the Navy ships are provoked they would shoot. That’s precisely the danger of escalation so powerfully spoken of by the Saudi foreign minister. If the Guardians of the Revolution who had harassed and threatened the US ships were to be blown away along with their boats by the fire power from those warships defending against an imminent attack, the IRGC would have retaliated and could fire a number of missiles against the large number of US warships sitting in the narrow and shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. Any direct hit would unleash a massive US retaliation against the Islamic Republic, what is known these days as World War III.

The US ships this time showed a high degree of restraint in the face of a potentially serious attack and the Iranians turned back just on time. Such restraints might not be offered in the future. That’s the prospect so worrisome to the Saudis and to all observers of the region.

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