How a War With Iran Could Start Accidentally

(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.

On the other hand, the attorney general, Eric H. Holder, and the FBI director, Robert Mueller, aren't the type of men who would make this sort of accusation lightly. And, perhaps more importantly, Iran isn't an entirely coherent place at the moment: The order to launch such a reckless operation could have come from any corner of Iran's chaotic government, or it may have been entirely self-initiated by a small band of radicals eager to bring about a confrontation with the U.S.

Which brings us to the particular challenge posed by the navy of the Revolutionary Guard: It could very well spark a war with the West without an express order from Tehran.

In a new report issued by the Institute for the Study of War, Navy Commander Joshua Himes, an expert on Iranian naval forces, suggests that this is a highly credible scenario: "Though Iran could make a rational decision to initiate a limited kinetic strike to further its strategic aims, an alternative scenario exists," he writes. "An incident could arise from having the less professional (or more fervent) IRGCN sailors overstep their commanders' intent, miscalculate at a tactical level, and set off a chain of events that could spiral into conflict."

And if such an incident happens, there is no easy way for the U.S. to de-escalate it: Iran recently rejected an American offer to establish a hot line between the two countries' militaries.

Himes writes that the current commander of the IRGCN, Adm. Ali Fadavi, led naval forces at the end of the Iran- Iraq War, when U.S. and Iranian forces came into brief conflict after a U.S. ship struck an Iranian mine. During a one-day battle dubbed "Operation Praying Mantis" in April 1988, the U.S. sank an Iranian frigate, a gunboat and three speedboats. Fadavi, according to Himes, is "driven by a desire to avenge humiliation" from that encounter and the U.S. military's accidental downing of an Iranian jetliner in 1988.

In September 2010, Fadavi laid out his vision for his navy's mission. According to Himes, Fadavi "contrasted the limited number of U.S. Navy ships with the hundreds at his disposal and emphasized speed and challenges inherent in tracking such vessels via radar as the key elements that allow his vessels to reach their intended target and employ either missiles or torpedoes in large numbers." Himes quotes Fadavi as saying that large ships don't have a place in the IRGCN because "choosing large vessels means that you play in the enemy's court and under his rules."

The alleged Quds Force assassination plot has moved the U.S. and Iran closer to open confrontation. If such a confrontation does come, it may not be sparked by an Iranian decision to kill its enemies on American soil, or to decisively cross the nuclear threshold. It may be sparked by a couple of true believers in an explosive-laden speedboat.