The world has grown accustomed to Iranian bluster. But even by the standards of the Islamic Republic, Adm. Habibollah Sayari's call last week to deploy the Iranian navy near the U.S. coast is stunning. The Pentagon knows, of course, that Iranian war vessels won't come near America's shores any time soon. As White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "We don't take these statements seriously, given that they do not reflect at all Iran's naval capabilities." The Iranian admiral may bark, but he doesn't have much of a bite.
Still, the loss of a sense of proportion revealed by the rhetoric of Iranian leaders tells us several things about the country's disorientation in the face of citizen uprisings that are still shaking the region. It also tells us that three years into President Obama's term, the U.S. and Iran remain perilously close to confrontation.
Iran is a country that has lost its regional momentum. Tehran cleverly utilized America's many mistakes in the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration to expand its sphere of influence and fill the power vacuum left by a declining United States. The enemies Iran could not defeat were crushed by the U.S. military, and the standing it could not achieve on its own fell into Tehran's lap through the plummeting of America's regional status.
But rising on the back of American missteps could only carry Iran so far. After the brutal repression of its people following the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009, and the rise of the Arab populations elsewhere in the region against their dictators, Tehran has lost its strategic sense of direction.
Though the Islamic Republic had predicted — and indeed applauded — an Arab Spring, it was nevertheless surprised by the absence of a prominent anti-American dimension to the protests. With no appetite among the Arab protesters to direct their anger against America, Iran faced great difficulty exploiting Arab frustrations, particularly since its government had no intention of embracing for Iran the kind of changes being demanded by demonstrators in neighboring countries.
The Arab Spring has diminished Iran's ability to wield soft power in the region. Instead, the momentum has shifted to Turkey, which has not been shy about stealing pages from the Iranian playbook for appealing to the Arab street.
When the strength of a state declines, its desperation increases. Its statements grow more aggressive and fear — more than calculation — guides its actions. Much indicates that the Islamic Republic is experiencing this right now, partly because of regional developments but mainly due to the state's internal weaknesses following the 2009 elections.
Yet, though it is preposterous to think that the American mainland is under some form of military threat by Iran, Tehran's disorientation has not reduced the risk of a U.S.-Iran confrontation. Indeed, the combination of three important factors explains why the U.S. military leadership has voiced its concerns that an accidental clash in the Persian Gulf could spiral out of control.
First, America's declining influence has created a vacuum in the region that begs to be filled. The ensuing jockeying for position and the creation of a new regional pecking order have given birth to geopolitical turmoil.
Second, this turmoil comes at a time when most regional powers are suffering from unusual internal political weakness. The ability to conduct effective foreign policy has been compromised by internal divisions. Decisions about crucial strategic matters are increasingly made on the basis of domestic politics rather than geopolitical calculus.
This near-collapse of statecraft is clearly visible in Israel. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to limit its foreign policy maneuverability to whatever its fragile governing coalition can endure. Disproportionate foreign policy risks are accepted in order to prolong the life span of the coalition at the expense of Israel's long-term interest.
Egypt, Iraq and Syria all suffer from political instability, in different forms and for different reasons. And while Saudi Arabia has managed to buy off its protesters, it will be facing a succession crisis in the next few years that could spark a Saudi Spring.
In Iran, political cannibalism within the Iranian elite has reached new heights. While this has not necessarily given birth to a new Iranian adventurism (beyond the harsh rhetoric), it has paralyzed the state and weakened its ability to maneuver in a changing strategic environment. This is particularly the case when it comes to crucial issues such as its relations with the United States.
Third, this paralysis is all the more dangerous in an environment in which the parties aren't on talking terms. This has led to a collapse of statecraft and an increase in bluster that could prove quite dangerous. One small spark could cause a conflagration.