Each side in the Persian Gulf sees its moves as purely defensive. It is the other guy who's the belligerent. The latest Iranian tests continue a dangerous action-reaction cycle that could lead to war.
It is no coincidence that Iran fired its salvo of 9 ballistic missiles on July 9 while the G-8 leaders in Japan were calling on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Its pyrotechnic display was a political statement, not a demonstration of any new military capability. All the missiles had been tested before; all but the Shahab-3 fly only 70 to 180 miles and are a threat to those on Iran's borders, but no one else. Iran claims the Shahab can now fly 1250 miles, but scientists I talked to (sometimes you really do need to be a rocket scientist) are very skeptical. "This would be a huge leap in capability," says Dr. David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "If true, it would almost double the missile's range. I'd have to see a lot more before I accepted this claim."
One could start tracing the reaction chain from any link, going back to the 1979 Iranian revolution, but the most relevant might be the Israeli military exercises reported on June 21 where Israel practiced sustained air strikes on a distant target that looked a lot like Iran. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said June 28 that if attacked, Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz: "Should a confrontation erupt between us and the enemy, the scope will definitely reach the oil issue... Oil prices will dramatically increase. This is one of the factors deterring the enemy from taking military action." He also cited Iran's missile power and the vulnerability of Israeli and U.S. forces in the region.
On July 2, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf said the U.S. Navy and its Gulf allies will not allow Iran to seal off the crucial straits, through which one-fifth of the world's oil supplies flow. On July 7, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Bahrain ran "Exercise Stake Net" to "practice the tactics and procedures of protecting maritime infrastructure," said Commodore Peter Hudson of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. On July 7, 8 and 9, the G-8 issued statements calling on Iran to end its enrichment program.
On July 9 Iran launches its missiles. It is no secret why. They tell us. "We warn the enemies who intend to threaten us with military exercises and empty psychological operations that our hand will always be on the trigger and our missiles will always be ready to launch," said IRGC air force commander Brigadier General Hussein Salami.
We have seen this movie before. In June 2006, the U.S. and South Korea conducted a large-scale, five-day war game with 22,000 military personnel and three aircraft carriers. It was the largest war game in the Pacific since Vietnam. In response, on July 4, North Korea tested seven ballistic missiles, including the medium-range Nodong that is the basis for the Iranian Shahab.
Here is the risk. If this cycle is not broken, it escalates. With Pyongyang, the U.S. ratcheted up its rhetoric and sanctions efforts after the missile tests. Did North Korea back down? No, it detonated a nuclear weapon in October 2006. Only when the U.S. began direct talks with the Koreans did the tensions ease. Now, the North Koreans are blowing up their nuclear reactor instead of nuclear bombs.
If direct talks (open or secret) do not begin soon, if all sides continue to respond only to that latest action of the other as if it had no precipitant, than the cycle will continue and could spin into a war no side truly wants.