(My Bloomberg View column this week)
This February, a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion surveillance plane, on routine patrol over the Persian Gulf, drew some unwelcome attention. An Iranian aircraft made such a close pass that the American pilots reported that they could see the faces of their Iranian adversaries. The Pentagon was quickly notified of the near- collision.
Two months later, the British warship HMS Iron Duke, patrolling the waters off Bahrain, was suddenly challenged by an approaching speedboat. Every sailor in every Western navy is acquainted with the al-Qaeda suicide-boat attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, in which 17 Americans were killed, so the Iron Duke's crew was quickly ordered to fire warning shots to the side of the speedboat. The two men in the approaching craft took the suggestion to heart, and sped away. The identities of the men are unknown, but some British and U.S. officials reached the highly plausible conclusion that they were part of the growing navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Yes, the Revolutionary Guards have their own navy -- a bigger one, in fact, than Iran's traditional navy. (The traditional navy has 18,000 sailors; the IRGC's navy reportedly has 20,000 personnel, as well as a large fleet suitable for waging the sort of asymmetric warfare it favors.) And the guards -- protectors of Ayatollah Khomeini's dystopian vision for a radicalized Muslim world, enthusiastic exporters of terrorism, and rulers of a state within a state -- are becoming ever more aggressive in the Gulf.
This year has seen a spike in such encounters. Western ships in the Gulf are now regularly shadowed by the smaller crafts of the Iranians. When U.S. strategists make lists of the many challenges posed by Iran, the capabilities of the IRGCN, as it is known, quickly rise to the top. The Gulf, of course, is indispensable to the smooth flow of energy resources (in 2009, more than 15 percent of oil traded worldwide moved through the Strait of Hormuz, the chokepoint between the Gulf and the Arabian Sea), and the Iranians are well aware of their ability to strangle the global economy.
Only Iran's nuclear program -- the one its leaders claim is entirely peaceful in nature even as they develop the technology to make triggers for nuclear weapons -- is a greater preoccupation.
The U.S. government, and the media, is distracted at the moment by the alleged plot by the Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. I'm ambivalent about this extraordinary allegation. On the one hand, it seems improbable that the Iranians, who are very good at committing dastardly acts (witness the devastating bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in the 1990s) would subcontract such a sensitive mission to a Mexican drug gang, as the U.S. has alleged. It also seems improbable that the Iranians would risk outright war by conducting such an assassination on U.S. soil.