10/06/2011 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2011

Iran Escalates Tensions With U.S. Over Persian Gulf

Shayan Ghajar and Geneive Abdo

Iran's perception of the United States' declining power in the Middle East and its dream of capitalizing on regional instability have provoked two actions in recent days: Tehran now has vowed to send naval vessels to the Atlantic Ocean and perhaps the Gulf of Mexico. It has also rebuffed an idea by some U.S. officials to establish a military-to-military hotline with Iranian forces in order to reduce the chance of a clash in the Persian Gulf.

In an interview broadcast live to one of Iran's primary state-owned TV channels October 4, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated that the establishment of communication with the U.S. would be "conditional," and he demanded that the United States pulling its naval vessels out of the Persian Gulf.

The president's remarks reveal the Iranian regime's current aggressive position. Since the Arab uprisings, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made clear that he believes this is Iran's moment at last to influence the Arab world and particularly create a security arrangement with Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Without the United States, Iran believes it could alter the balance of power -- even though this is highly unlikely.

Iran is particularly focused on the instability in Bahrain, where the United States has a major naval base for the Fifth Fleet. Not only has tension grown between the ruling monarchy, the Al Khalifa family, and the majority Shia population, but there is growing sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni. Tehran is hoping that the tension in Bahrain will force the United States to close its naval base.

During the Bahrain uprising earlier this year, the presence of the Fifth Fleet became a source of criticism toward the United States for its position as both a defender of human rights in countries such as Egypt, and a traditional ally of the authoritarian Bahraini government. Bahrainis lashed out at President Barack Obama for his unwillingness to condemn the Bahraini government for the profound human rights violations being committed against the protesters.

Tehran's current thinking does not bode well for any form of cooperation between Tehran and Washington. Once again, it seems Tehran has rebuffed the Obama administration's efforts --however modest -- of some form of engagement. U.S. military officials have long held the belief that accidental miscommunications in the Persian Gulf posed a much greater risk of a military conflict with Iran than an air strike or another form of conventional attack.

In an apparent effort to make the United States feel the same pressures the Islamic Republic faces in the Persian Gulf, Iranian commanders declared September 27 that Iran would be sending naval vessels into the Gulf of Mexico."As the global arrogance (a pejorative euphemism for the United States) have a presence near our sea borders, we also plan to have a strong presence near the U.S. sea borders with the help of the soldiers who are loyal to the Supreme Leader," declared one of Iran's highest ranking naval officers, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari. When this statement met with skepticism from American military analysts, who argued Iran lacks the global infrastructure to project its naval power so far abroad, another Iranian officer, Captain Alireza Rahmati, declared that Iranian vessels are indeed capable of such distant sojourns.

Nevertheless, unless or until Iranian ships share the Gulf of Mexico with its more usual flotillas of shrimpers and oil vessels, the major threat to international peace and regional stability remains the proximity of American and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

On September 21, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, lamented the lack of communication between Iran and the United States in the context of military tensions in the Persian Gulf. "We're not talking to Iran so we don't understand each other. If something happens [in the Persian Gulf], it's virtually assured that we won't get it right, that there will be miscalculations which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world." Admiral Mullen supported the idea of opening a line of communications between the two countries to prevent catastrophic escalations in the event of a violent incident in the Persian Gulf, comparing the situation to the communications maintained between the United States and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War.

Ahmadinejad, when asked about the potential for a military hotline between Iran and U.S. forces in the Gulf, stated this week: "First, we oppose the presence of American forces in the region and we believe that as the basis for dissolving tensions, the United States forces must leave the region." These statements reflect somewhat of a reversal in his earlier position on the issue. After Admiral Mullen's remarks several days ago, the Iranian president seemed more open to the idea of the military-to-military hotline. But apparently, Ahmadinejad was sidelined once again by more powerful figures -- Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp.

In recent weeks, multiple Iranian military commanders have rejected the idea out of hand. On September 26, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, declared "When we go to the Gulf of Mexico, we will establish direct communication with them. In the view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the illegitimate presence of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf makes no sense," according to Mehr News, a semi-official news agency.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast also parroted on October 4 what increasingly seems to be Iran's stance on the issue: "Any solution which helps remove tension among the countries should be hailed; of course the best solution is the U.S.troops' withdrawal from the Middle East. The possibility of any tension would be removed if the U.S. troops leave the region."

Given that the United States has no future plans to eliminate its military presence in the Persian Gulf, it seems the hostilities with Iran will go unabated.

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation and the National Security Network. Shayan Ghajar is a research associate for the project.