The Iranian naval buildup is described by U.S. officials as part of an effort by the Islamic Republic to bolster its military credibility in the region.
The Pentagon’s April assessment said Iran was making steady progress in developing ballistic missiles capable of striking targets in Israel and beyond. It also said Tehran was enhancing its well-established capacity to launch terrorist attacks using surrogates such as Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia movement that operates a network of cells around the world.
U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials have linked Iran and Hezbollah to a string of assassination attempts and terrorist attacks on three continents in the past six months — from the foiled plot to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington last fall to the deadly bombing of a tour bus filled with Israelis last week in Bulgaria. Current and former U.S. officials say more attacks are likely if Israel launches a preemptive strike on Iran’s uranium-enrichment plants.
“Iran has the capacity to attack, from Argentina to Venezuela, in Asia, in Europe and throughout the Middle East,” Danielle Pletka, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Wednesday in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It seems naïve to believe it does not have the capacity to launch attacks in the United States.”
The arms buildup in the gulf comes as Israeli officials continue to weigh an airstrike that many experts believe would ignite a larger conflict. A stream of Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, have visited Israel in recent weeks to lobby against a unilateral attack. Middle East experts say that Israel has not decided to attack but that the risk of an Israeli strike is rising as hopes of a diplomatic settlement to the nuclear crisis evaporate.
David Makovsky, a Middle East expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said after discussions with top Israeli officials that he assessed the chances of a strike at “50-50 . . . before the U.S. elections” in November. “There’s this feeling that Israel’s window is closing.”
U.S. ships, meanwhile, continue steaming toward the gulf as the Obama administration seeks to reassure allies in the region and discourage Iran from moving to block the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. U.S. and Middle Eastern officials acknowledge that deployments carry inherent risk, but they say there are no good alternatives.
“It is a dilemma,” the Middle East intelligence official said. “When the Navy ships are in the strait, they are vulnerable to attack. But if you were to take them away, the gulf countries would feel more vulnerable. And already they feel very, very vulnerable.”