The Islamic Republic and the United States have set the scene for a collision at sea during the two-and-a-half months remaining until the Five Big Powers and Germany join Iran at the nuclear negotiating table on Sept. 1.
Tuesday, July 20, parliament in Tehran approved tit-for-tat government action against countries which inspect Iranian ships or aircraft on the authority of UN sanctions against its nuclear program.
President Barack Obama and his advisers on Iranian affairs were counting on the new sanctions imposed by the UN, the US and the Europeans having a softening impact on Iranian defiance.
By September, they reckoned, four months of serious disruptions of their fuel supplies and marine traffic and restrictions on their external banking activities should have made Tehran more responsive to the big powers' proposals – except that Russia, China and Turkey have thrown this calculus out by stepping in to help Iran dodge these upsets.
On July 14, Russia and Iran signed a row of energy cooperation accords promising Tehran a supply of petroleum products and petrochemicals and establishing a joint bank to fund their transactions.
Such cooperation has given Iran substantial leeway for evading US bans on refined petroleum sales, as well as a joint bank for funding for those sales and Russian firms for insuring shipments.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report that, should Iran survive sanctions without real discomfort, Obama will have to decide whether to step up the pressure on Tehran by fully enforcing them, a course that would for the first time pose the risk of a direct military clash.
Iran will fight back for searches at sea
This would entail a presidential order to American warships to inspect the cargoes of Iranian ships plying routes on the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Sea to ascertain they are not carrying contraband freights prohibited under international sanctions.
The Iranian Majlis has anticipated this course and sent Washington a clear signal that Tehran would not take US inspections of its ships or planes lying down.
It ratified an earlier warning issued by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)'s Navy commander, General Ali Fadavi, on June 25: "… if the United States and its allies inspect Iranian ships in international waters they will receive a response in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz."
Iran drilled this eventuality May 5-12 in the eight-day Velayat-89 exercise in which its entire navy, air force and special commandos were mobilized to practice seizing control of broad stretches of water in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the northern Indian Ocean.
Rear Admiral Qasem Rostamabadi, spokesman for the Iranian exercise, said at the time: "Passing ships were successfully checked by (Iranian) destroyers, frigates, special operation teams and naval commandos in line with the goal of establishing security and peace in transit routes bound for the Hormuz Strait and the Persian Gulf."
US military effort redeployed to focus on naval, marine strength
Preparing for a possible clash with Iran against this background before September, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report US forces have redeployed. The Pentagon has refocused its military effort from massive air strength to large naval and marine concentrations in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, foreseen as possible flashpoints.
The Marine Aircraft Carrier USS Peleliu ("The Iron Nickel") is now cruising in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden opposite the Horn of Africa with 2,543 enlisted sailors and 2,200 US Marines aboard.
The USS Nassau LHA-4 aircraft carrier is deployed in the Gulf of Oman, off the Straits of Hormuz, carrying 2,000 US Marines.
A second aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman carrying 5,000 marines has been moved to the Arabian Sea off the southern coast of Iran and the northern Indian Ocean.
All three strike forces are trained in tactics for seizing Iranian ships, capturing offshore islands or striking at IRGC coastal bases, from which retaliatory attacks can be mounted against US, European and Persian Gulf Emirate shipping.
The Gulf complains, wants stronger US missile defenses
The Saudi and Gulf capitals are all agog over a possible US-Iranian clash at sea, but far from satisfied with US preparations for their defense.
This came out loud and clear from a long interview with an unnamed "American missile expert" run by Arab News, a leading Saudi website representing Prince Khaled bin Sultan, Deputy Defense Minister and son of the minister, Crown Prince Sultan, under the heading: "US Missile Defense Ill-prepared for Iran."
This "missile expert" came away from a recent survey of the missile interception systems the US installed in the Gulf region with the impression that the Americans had not provided the Persian Gulf states with adequate defenses for Iranian missiles.
He is quoted as pointing to "the US numerical disadvantage" for handling "a thousand or so Iranian missiles that are 120 miles away," explaining, "We (US) are lacking the numbers of the specific PAC-3 missiles; we are lacking the launchers that are needed and other systems that are needed to be deployed as quickly as possible."
After visiting US missile installations Bahrain, "the missile expert" is said to have reported that only two US air defense battalions are currently spread across the four (Gulf) countries to protect thousands of US personnel as well as the nearby cities, military sites and civilian populations."
He pointed out that the United States had been reportedly planning to bolster missile protection for its allies in the Gulf, including dispatching sea-based cruisers with sophisticated Aegis defense systems. Washington also reportedly said (in January 2010) it was beefing up its eight Patriot missile batteries, although there has been no evidence of this.
This article was a clear Saudi thumbs-down for Washington to complain that much more needs to be done to protect the Gulf States before the Americans and their Gulf allies are ready to take Iran on in the showdown under discussion between them.