Monday, January 7, 2008

US Navy ships harrassed by Iran

Is Iran trying to provoke a conflict with the United States?

It is something to wonder about after this weekend’s mock attack on three US Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Five small boats aggressively approached the Navy ships, closing to within 500 yards before retreating. The Navy ships were preparing to fire on the Iranian boats when they withdrew.

The five boats were under the control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who maintain an armed force separate from the Iranian military. Like the name implies, the Revolutionary Guard’s mission is to continue the spirit of the Islamic revolution that drove the Shah from power in 1979 and brought in the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Through much of 2007 it seemed like the Bush administration was making the case for military action against Iran over their suspected nuclear weapons program. But in December US intelligence agencies released a report claiming Iran suspended the weapons program in 2003, largely putting a stop to the calls for military action against Iran.

But perhaps hardliners within Iran would see a conflict with the United States as a good thing.

Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a staunch conservative himself) is facing several problems at home. He was elected in 2005 by promising reforms that would help modernize the country and lift people out of poverty. So far he has not delivered on these promises. To make matters worse (for him at least), more than half of Iran’s population is under 25 and increasingly they look to the West for their future, rather than to the Ayatollahs of the revolution. In local elections in December of 2006, reformist and moderate candidates outpolled the ultra-conservative ones.

Its hard to see Ahmadinejad being able to institute the massive reforms he promised before his term ends, meaning he himself would likely be replaced by a more reform-minded (and less conservative) president. But a conflict with the United States could change that, prompting a “rally ‘round the flag” response from the young people and helping to turn them away from their desires to be more “western.”

Iran’s calculus could be that the United States is already overstretched militarily, and that the incoming president in 2009 will be looking to withdraw from the Persian Gulf, not become more deeply involved. A conflict then would likely be brief, the damage manageable, but successful in reigniting the spark of revolution within the hearts of Iran’s young.

It will be interesting to see if there are further “incidents” in the Persian Gulf in the next few weeks.
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