While temperatures in the Persian Gulf hover mercilessly above 100 degrees this time of year, political and military tensions seem to be running a lot hotter.
The shooting incident off the United Arab Emirates Monday involving a U.S. Navy ship and a civilian boat may be just one indication of how much warmer this summer might get in the Gulf.
Unfortunately, little incidents can turn into a big deal. Iran appears itching for confrontation. It’s unhappy about punitive economic sanctions and other measures that have been slapped on it over its nuclear (weapons) and missile programs.
New European Union sanctions as well as pressure on other energy importers have resulted in declining Iranian oil exports — and increasing pressure on government coffers and the economy.
Of course, the crux of the matter is that there’s been no progress on slowing Iran’s nuclear program, despite a recent round of talks in Baghdad and Moscow. Not budging from its “right” to enrich uranium, Tehran’s latest justification is that it plans to build nuclear-powered submarines and even merchant ships — a largely impractical idea.
The dirty little secret is that ship-board nuclear propulsion reactors can use uranium that is enriched to some 90 percent — coincidentally, the same level needed for a nuclear weapon.
Plus, last week a British spymaster said publicly he believed Iran could build a bomb in the next two years. That would be in 2014, just before we expect Iran to field its first intercontinental ballistic missile.
Turning things up a degree or two, Iran held war games this month. Tehran’s display of missile prowess was a sharp reminder that nearby U.S. bases and Israeli cities are within range.
Then, over the weekend in Iran’s press, the Revolutionary Guard Corps naval commander threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.
The Iranian parliament followed suit, calling for the closure of the 20-mile wide strategic strait, unless the global community meets its 14 conditions, including the lifting of sanctions.
The United States is not sitting idly by.
News reports note the Pentagon is sending an aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf ahead of schedule. This will ensure we’ve two carriers on station in the region without a gap.
The Navy reportedly has also doubled the number of minesweepers (four to eight) in the Gulf, some equipped with “SeaFox” underwater drones, in case Iran tries to close the strait with mines.
The Air Force sent advanced F-22 stealth fighters to the region, and The Wall Street Journal reports that we’re building a missile defense radar in Qatar.
The point of the American build-up is to send at least a couple of signals to the Iranians. First, attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz won’t be tolerated.
Second it is to remind Tehran that the military option for dealing with its nuclear program is still an option and that now might be the time to talk in earnest.
The short-term challenge becomes misperception and miscalculation.
Soaring summer temperatures, lots of military metal floating and flying around the Gulf and a lack of love between Washington and Tehran are a recipe for trouble.
While we can expect the utmost in professionalism from our forces, the same can’t be said for the likes of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which may prefer provocation. We better be aware that the jumpiness of July could easily lead to the guns of August.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.