Iran, Israel, and US tension builds

By Elise Labott and Jill Dougherty

In seeking to avoid a military confrontation with Iran, the United States is navigating a myriad of potential landmines that has created a tense triangle between Iran, Israel and the U.S.

Most immediately, the United States is trying to make clear to Iran the consequences of closing the Strait of Hormuz, a key transit point for one-fifth of the world’s oil.

Washington is doing everything to get its message across but send up smoke signals to warn Iran. In the absence of relations, the United States has used a variety of public statements and secret diplomatic backchannels to send a message to Iran that closing the Strait would be a red-line.

Even after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly warned Tehran against such a move last Thursday, threatening to “respond” if Iran attempts to shut down traffic, the U.S. also sent diplomatic messages through Switzerland – its protecting power in Iran – and through Iraqi President Jalal Talibani.

And just in case Iran was unclear, Washington has sent a rare letter to the Iranian government, delivered by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to Ambassador Mohammad Khazayee, Iran’s permanent representative at the U.N., according to a U.S. official who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.

But sending a message to Iran is not so simple, admit administration officials who note there are many power centers in Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khammanei, President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, and the country’s influential clergy. It remains unclear just who these missives should be directed to and who is making the decisions that matter.

The main question is, will U.S. warnings get through to Iran’s influential Revolutionary Guard, whose heavily armed boats last week streaked close to the amphibious transport ship, the USS New Orleans? The Pentagon publicly released video of the boats, a warning to the Iranian forces that the United States is closely monitoring them.

Even with clear red-lines, miscalculation could lead to confrontation. In a recent interview with CNN’s Barbara Starr, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top U.S. military commander, was frank about his concerns that Iran would miscalculate American resolve and draw the U.S. into a conflict.

Michael Rubin, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who worked on Iran at the Pentagon during the Bush administration, believes it’s possible. Rubin notes that an Iranian leadership which grew up on the front-line of the Iran-Iraq war or in some theological center is not versed in the ways of the west.

“Wars in the Middle East aren’t caused by oil, they are caused fundamentally by one side’s overconfidence. When it comes to the Iranians, we have to remember, they are not international diplomats,” he warns. “They don’t know how the West operates and they may be convinced that the West is a paper tiger.”

Even as the United States holds its fire and tries to convince Iran to hold its own, Israel’s intentions remain even more of a wild card.

Last week’s news that Iran has started to enrich uranium at its underground Fordow facility near Qom has increased U.S. concerns, not just about Iran’s nuclear capability but about the possibility of Israel trying to stop it.

Israel has called a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its survival and has hinted it could take military action to take out its nuclear program if international sanctions fail to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted earlier this month that Iranian moves to build a nuclear bomb would be the ultimate red-line of a military strike, while Israel has indicated it has a much lower bar.

And the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, which Tehran claims was the work of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, has further raised tensions to a fever pitch.

The United States and Israel have canceled planned large-scale military exercises in the region, which were designed to test their joint air defense systems against incoming missiles, in particular from Iran.

This could lower tensions in the region, albeit probably only temporarily, although U.S. officials insist that was not the reason for the cancellation. Even Gen. Dempsey, who is expected to visit Israel later this week, admitted to CNN’s Starr in that same interview that Washington has no guarantees that Israel will give the United States ample warning if it decides to attack Iran.

This high-stakes triangle only includes the immediate dangers of escalation; it doesn’t even take into account the likely arms race that would draw in Iran’s neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, if Iran gets the bomb.

It’s all a heavy burden for a country that doesn’t even talk with Iran– which is why with tensions so high, the United States has suggested to Iran that the two sides establish a channel of direct communication to ensure miscalculations don’t escalate.

Such contacts could be helpful, but likely not enough. If Iran believes its own rhetoric and will not budge on international red-lines, it may be headed toward an unavoidable collision course with the West– one that, as Dempsey warned, would be a “tragedy for the region and the world.”

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