President Barack Obama is juggling three hot, anti-Iran warfronts in the air.
On the economic front, he is wielding international isolation and sanctions on Iran as his main weapons.
This front will peak twice in the course of 2012: At the end of January, European Union members are committed to approving an embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil. Then, in six months, if Tehran still refuses to relent and halt its nuclear program, US sanctions against the Iranian national bank, CBI, go into force and affect 60-80 percent of Iran’s entire income.
This timeline was enough to sink Iran's currency, the rial. It was saved from collapse when the central bank intervened after a 30 percent nosedive against the US dollar.
Even so, Tehran refuses to budge one inch on its nuclear weapon program.
The covert operations front has a very broad spectrum – from cyber warfare to the pursuit and destruction of Iran-bound cargoes of nuclear materials and equipment shipments, targeted assassinations of key nuclear officials, and the sabotage of military facilities in Iran related to the production of nuclear weapons.
After many major US and Israeli achievements, the covert war was seriously set back on Dec, 4 by Iran's downing of America's top secret stealth RQ-170 Sentinel drone over its territory.
Iran kicks back hard from its home waters
The third war entails trimming the influence of Iran's Middle East allies.
To this end, the US is quietly backing the movement to topple Syria's President Bashar Assad. His removal would knock over the Islamic Republic's strongest strategic pillar and sever Tehran's access to the Mediterranean and direct link to its Lebanese proxy Hizballah, the only credible pro-Iranian military force in the Middle East.
To give his three-pronged anti-Iran offensive military muscle, President Obama detached just over 40,000 troops from the US army which exited Iraq last month and scattered them around US Middle East bases.
While Iran has benefited from the distancing of American troops from its western borders and, so long as Bashar Assad is in power, gained a straight through corridor to Syria, it has also landed itself with US military strength building up uncomfortably close by in Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman waters, the only outward shipping route for Iranian and Gulf Arab oil.
In that sense, Iran's horizon for expansion has shrunk to its own front door. This accounts for the principal US-Iranian sparring arena shifting so dramatically in recent weeks to the Persian Gulf. Tehran was bound to kick back hard.
Monday, Jan. 2 Iran’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi said: “The transit of ships via the Persian Gulf is not illegal, but the presence of foreign warships in the Persian Gulf on the pretext of thwarting threats is unacceptable. Iranian navy warships are stationed in the Persian Gulf and they permit the transit of foreign ships after registering their name and other details.”
The transit of American, British, French and Russian vessels to the Persian Gulf for many years, said the Iranian general, is motivated by their greed for the region’s energy resources. Those foreign countries share out the cost of their presence in the region "for plundering its oil."
Pentagon: US will continue its decades' long deployment
The next day, Jan. 3, Lt. Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the Iranian Army commander, translated this theme into practical terms. He threatened action if a US aircraft carrier (the USS Stennis), which sailed out through the Strait of Hormuz in the course of Iran's 10-day naval exercises, returned to the Gulf.
“Iran will not repeat its warning… the enemy’s carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf,” Salehi said. “I advise, recommend and warn them (the Americans) over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once.”
Washington tried brushing off Iranian threats as proof that "sanctions are working." The Pentagon stressed that the deployment of US military assets in the Persian Gulf will continue as it has for decades.
But so long as the Stennis or any other US carrier tries does not cross through the Strait of Hormuz to reenter the Persian Gulf, Tehran's threats and its assumption of the right to make the rules for these waters remain unchallenged.
So the sand in the hourglass for a US-Iranian clash of arms over Persian Gulf waters began running out on the third day of 2012 with the gauntlet thrown down by Gen. Salehi.
Time for President Obama in an election year is also at a premium.
Not only has he entered the presidential election year, but he faces strong heat for a counter-move from the Arab oil producers led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, lest Iran be allowed to get away with dictating the rules of navigation in the Persian Gulf. And no one doubts that if Obama neglects to order a US warship to enter those waters fairly quickly, Tehran will not let the grass grow under its feet before pressing its advantage.
Is Iran looking for a chance to attack a US military asset?
And indeed, Wednesday, Jan. 4, Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on Iranian state television:
"Iran will do anything to preserve the security of the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf… We have said the presence of forces from beyond the region in the Persian Gulf is not needed and is harmful," The comments echoed a warning issued Tuesday by Iran's military that it would unleash its "full force" if a US aircraft carrier is redeployed to the Gulf.
Most Western pundits argue that Iran would not dare strike an American aircraft carrier for fear of a forceful US response developing into an operation to cripple Iran's nuclear facilities and demolish Revolutionary Guards command centers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and Iranian sources beg to differ.
The Iranians are on a roll, but they are crafty enough to try and not get caught. They may settle for an attack causing limited damage to a US warship in a way that makes its source hard to pin down, modeling it on their operation against the Japanese oil tanker Star M on July 28, 2010.
A mysterious explosion struck the Star M as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz near Oman injuring crew members. US and Gulf sources admitted reluctantly at the time that "it could have been an attack," but then made every effort to obscure the fact that an international oil tanker had been attacked in the vital waterway. The same inclination for denial exists today.
US and Gulf forces on high war alert
After a cooling-off period, US Fifth Fleet munitions experts established that the Japanese tanker had been hit by a missile fired from an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat. So Iran's threat to international oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz has been in force for 18 months, ignored by the Obama administration until this week.
Since then, Tehran has acquired a whole range of weaponry for menacing Gulf shipping – more sophisticated sea mines, midget submarines, mobile anti-ship cruise missiles and a fleet of small speedboats.
A highly proficient marine force has been trained in naval special operations and frogman tactics to make good on Defense Minister Vahidi's threat "to do anything to preserve security of the Strait of Hormuz and entrance to the Gulf."
To clothe Iran's highhanded steps with a semblance of legality, Iran's parliament (Majlis) announced Wednesday the drafting of a bill prohibiting foreign warships from entering the Persian Gulf without Tehran's permission
Well aware of how close the US-Iranian standoff is to exploding, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that since early this week all American forces in the Persian Gulf and the armies of the Gulf States-GCC went on a high state of preparedness.