WASHINGTON -- The dueling rocket attacks and air strikes between Israel and Gaza are escalating in one of the world's most unstable and heavily armed regions -- raising the specter of a broader war that almost certainly would engage U.S. military forces.
The risks of a wider conflict -- one that could see Iranian missiles targeting American troops in Afghanistan, Hezbollah rocket and guerrilla attacks into Northern Israel from Lebanon, U.S. warships fighting through minefields to re-open the strait of Hormuz and smoke billowing from wrecked tankers and oil facilities along the Persian Gulf -- are higher because of growing opportunities for miscalculation, according to military and regional experts.
For the region's major military powers -- the U.S., Israel, Turkey and Iran -- there is no hotline, no diplomatic link that could help prevent them from groping blindly through an escalating crisis.
And once started, a regional conflict would be hard to stop, experts say. Recent war games demonstrated the tendency of Washington and Tehran to completely misread the other's intentions.
As a result of increasing militarization of the region and escalating tension, there is "a growing risk" of "a major clash or war in the [Persian] Gulf -- not because one is desired, but as the unintended consequence of rising tension and mistrust," said Anthony Cordesman, a senior arms analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington.
The U.S. strategy of using diplomacy and military power to deter violent escalation "is always a risk, and the more tensions rise the higher the risk," Cordesman told The Huffington Post.
"Crisis management can work when you are dealing with a partner who wants to manage the crisis, as we saw with the former Soviet Union," he added, noting that Iran has rejected the idea of a hotline. "It's unfortunately true that you can put in hotlines and sign agreements but if the partner doesn't want it to work, it won't."
Although the world's attention is riveted on the fighting in Gaza, there has been a steady rise in military tension across the region over the past few months. The civil war raging in Syria has ignited violence along its border with Turkey, whose status as a NATO ally requires the U.S. to come to its aid if requested. Syria shot down a Turkish warplane in June. Iran has shot down a U.S. spy drone, and last week Israel returned fire into Syria after Syrian mortar shells landed on the Golan Heights in Northern Israel.
Military exercises, meanwhile, also have been escalating. In July, Iran simulated missile attacks on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf. This fall, the U.S. and 30 allied nations sent warships into the Persian Gulf to practice counter-mine warfare. Iran has a stockpile of tens of thousands of sophisticated sea mines and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has vowed to re-open the Gulf oil routes if Iran carries out its threat to shut down oil traffic. While the allied warships were underway, Iran fired four anti-ship missiles, destroying a ship-sized practice target near the Strait of Hormuz.
Early this month, two Iranian fighters attacked a U.S. drone which U.S. officials said was in international airspace over the Persian Gulf. The Iranian jets missed in two passes and the drone got away.
Within the region, these incidents and exercises are seen as signals -- saber-rattling to demonstrate resolve, or military prowess or impatience. Such signalling doesn't always work: four years ago, an effort by Iran to impress the outside world backfired when it was caught doctoring photos of a multiple missile launch.
But the risks of using threats of force as diplomatic signals, in the overheated atmosphere of the Middle East, were demonstrated clearly in a recent war game played out at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Experts playing the roles of U.S. and Iranian officials discovered that even small miscalculations pushed both sides toward open conflict.
"Washington should be very careful about how it tries to send signals to Tehran in a crisis, especially if it attempts to use military actions as signals," Kenneth Pollack, a senior Persian Gulf analyst at Brookings, wrote in a summary of the simulation. "There is a very high risk that the Iranians either will not understand such signals or may interpret them in a very different way than was intended."
Decades of mutual hostility and suspicion, and a lack of regular communications, have left Iran and the U.S. "in a very dangerous situation when tensions are high, direct contacts are impossible and miscalculation and misperception are likely," Pollack wrote.
A flood of heavy weapons into the region has made tensions even higher.
Under a formalized security arrangement with the six states of the Gulf Coordination Council, the U.S. has accelerated arms sales to the region.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, between 2008 and 2011, the U.S. delivered $116.8 billion worth of weapons into the Middle East, and most of that to the Gulf states. That's almost double the previous four-year period, when U.S. deliveries came to $60.3 billion. The arms bonanza concluded a year ago with the sale of jet fighters to Saudi Arabia, a deal worth $29.4 billion -- the single largest American arms sale ever.
The U.S. arms deliveries included 348 tanks and 199 artillery systems, and with its allies the U.S. delivered almost 800 anti-air missiles and 100 supersonic combat aircraft. Russia also got in the arms sales game, delivering into the Middle East 3,480 anti-air missiles, 30 supersonic combat aircraft and 50 tanks. Even China delivered 60 tanks. The CRS report did not account for sales of other missiles, artillery rounds, land and sea mines and other weapons.
The accumulation of weapons and grievances in the Middle East deeply worries Paul Bracken, Yale professor of management and political science and an expert in risk and crisis management. Bracken, who has written widely on nuclear crisis management, noted that the current conflict in the Middle East, involving Israel and the fragmented Hamas leadership, but also Egypt, Iran, Turkey and the U.S., is far more complex and difficult to manage than the Cuban missile crisis, which involved only Washington and Moscow.
Still, he said, so far everyone seems to be honoring an escalation threshold -- Hezbollah has not opened fire on Israel from Lebanon, Syria did not pursue the confrontation on the Golan Heights, Egypt has made certain no rockets are fired from its territory. U.S. and Iranian warships are largely observing a de-facto practice of maintaining at least 500 meters between ships.
But Bracken, author of a new book on nuclear crisis management, said he sees the current crisis as a "dress rehearsal" for a bigger crisis that will occur when Iran obtains a nuclear weapons capability.
In that sense, he said, "we are well beyond the dangers of the Cuban missile crisis."
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