Experts: US-Iran tensions could trigger accidental war

US military official: Current standoff similar to the buildup in hostility in Europe before World War I.

Iranian war games 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iranian war games 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Tensions between the United States and Iran have risen to the point where a war could be kicked off by mistake, an outcome that neither Tehran nor Washington wants, US military officials and private analysts say. A US military official here likened the current US-Iran standoff to the buildup in hostility in Europe before World War I, when a duke's assassination triggered a tragic war that engulfed a continent. "A mistake could be made and you could end up in something that neither side ever really wanted, and suddenly it's August 1914 all over again," the US officer said on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the issue. "I really believe neither side wants a fight." Iraq is already a proxy battleground between Washington and Tehran, and the US military escalation in the region - including the recent deployment of a second carrier battle group to the Gulf region and plans to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq - makes a full-blown war with Iran more likely, said Vali Nasr, an Iran expert at the US Naval Postgraduate School. "The US escalation could trigger greater conflict, especially since Iraq provides an unstable context in which it can happen," Nasr said Monday. In Tehran, political analyst Hermidas Bavand said US force increases were leading many Iranians to believe Washington is looking to pick a fight, perhaps one that would overshadow America's disastrous intervention in Iraq. "It's an extremely dangerous situation. I don't think Tehran wants war under any circumstances. But there might be an accidental event that could escalate into a large confrontation," Bavand said. "It could be difficult to contain." The United States and Iran are locked in an escalating series of provocations. Washington accuses Iran of arming and training Shiite Muslim extremists in Iraq. US troops have responded with arresting of Iranian diplomats in Iraq, and the White House has said US President George W. Bush signed an order allowing US troops to kill or capture Iranians inside Iraq. "If you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target," US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said last week. The two countries also are in dispute over Tehran's controversial nuclear program. The United States accuses Iran of secretly developing atomic weapons - an allegation Tehran denies. Iran's defiant refusal to suspend uranium enrichment lead the UN Security Council to impose limited economic sanctions. The US-Iran standoff complicates the Qatar-based US Central Command's work overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Centcom commander Gen. John Abizaid, set to retire in March, is required to calibrate Tehran's reactions to the extra US warships and troops making their way to the region. Centcom also must keeps close tabs on Iranian military maneuvers and internal political developments. Iranian coast guard vessels recently veered into territorial waters on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, an event that could have been viewed as either a mistake or a provocation, the US officer said. Both sides are on tenterhooks. "You see little things. A boat crosses a line. Like their coast guard. But what does it mean? You've got to be very careful about overreacting," the officer said in an interview on a US base in Qatar. "It's a problem. It certainly makes Gen. Abizaid's job a lot more complicated." Iran's military has more than 500,000 troops and an antiquated collection of ships, aircraft, ballistic missiles and other weapons. US military analysts describe the Iranian military as large but ineffective. Surrounding Iran are more than 200,000 US troops in bases scattered across Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The US Navy has a carrier battle group in the region and another on the way, and dozens of US bombers and strike aircraft are arrayed on bases surrounding Iran. Those US bases - and not Iran's archenemy Israel - provide the likeliest targets for an Iranian strike, the US officer said. Gates said this month that the Pentagon was dispatching an additional Patriot missile defense battery to the Gulf region, ostensibly to protect US bases. "We're a little closer than the Israelis. We're a better target for him," the officer said, speaking of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Any war "would be a very short and very violent fight," he said. Nasr, the Iran expert at the US Naval school, and the US officer cautioned that Washington's ongoing focus on Ahmadinejad's anti-Western rhetoric may strengthen the hard-line's president's position even among his critics back home. "We've got to stop making him the red herring that he is. He's distracting so much of our attention. Because he's good at it. He plays to the media," the US officer said. But left alone, analysts believe domestic pressure on Ahmadinejad could eventually lead to his ouster, or at least dilute his power. Reformists and some conservatives who voted him into power in 2005 have recently voiced increasing criticism of Ahmadinejad, saying he spends too much time engaging in anti-Western rhetoric and not enough energy on Iran's domestic problems including its struggling economy. "I don't think Ahmadinejad is very sophisticated. He's grossly overplaying his hand," the US officer said. "The real power base in Iran is starting to lose interest in him. You can see it. We should probably let this situation develop, as painful as it can be in the short term. I think he will soon find himself on the ledge wondering how he got there."