If talks fail, military build-up near Iran risks a regional war

The military stakes are very high in Iran's stand-off with the US and its allies. One little slip could result in very grave consequences.

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The Middle East is experiencing a period of extreme tension, with conflicts breaking out in Syria, Gaza, Iraq and potentially the Arabian Gulf. Analysts find themselves falling back to the "Cold War" model, with the United States and its allies on one side and Iran and its allies on the other. Every time a conflict heats up, eyes shift to Tehran and Washington to see whether this could be the spark of a long-awaited military showdown.

Although freshly re-elected US President Barack Obama is widely expected to restart talks with Iran over its nuclear policy, not much optimism is attached to the anticipated discussions because of the scale of the differences, complexities and distrust.

Assessments by US officials seem to suggest that Washington believes the tough economic sanctions on Iran and the weakening of the Syrian regime - Iran's main strategic ally - have substantially undermined Tehran's position, to the extent where it will show flexibility during the next round of talks.

At the same time, statements by Iranian officials that appear in the media seem to show that they have concluded that the United States - defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing acute economic and financial difficulties, and with its people exhausted by wars - is in no position to wage war or pose a serious military threat to Iran. Hence, Tehran seems to be saying, it is time to be bold and push the West to make further concessions in the coming discussions.

Although only time can tell who has a better judgement of the situation, time is a sensitive factor with respect to the Iranian nuclear programme. Negotiations for the sake of negotiations will only buy much-needed leeway for Iran to make further progress in its nuclear programme and improve its regional position vis-à-vis the US and its allies.

There is a belief that the next round of discussions between the two sides could be the last. Furthermore, every time talks fail, the two sides edge closer to war because the absence of progress in diplomacy and the ticking Iranian nuclear clock both make the military option more likely.

As political efforts stall and economic sanctions fail to achieve their objectives, the military build-up in the region continues. At least two US aircraft carrier groups, along with an armada of warships, amphibious assault ships, minesweepers and submarines have massed in the Arabian Gulf and Sea of Oman. Naval forces are backed by squadrons of US air force jets and bombers stationed in and around the region, including the fifth generation F-22 Raptor jet fighter, plus tens of thousands of US army troops. The military forces of other western countries such as France and Britain are also on standby in the area, as are the forces of their Arab allies.

The bulk of these forces are deployed off Iran's western and southern coastline ready to pounce any minute, keeping the Iranian military constantly alert. Tehran is also quickly building more ballistic and cruise missiles plus long-range rockets, in an attempt to make up for their inferiority in air power and naval forces.

In a conflict, Iran would hope to use its huge missile arsenal against the US and its allies the same way Hizbollah used its against Israel in the summer of 2006 and Hamas attacked Israel in the recent Gaza war. Iran's strategy would be to engage the West in an asymmetrical war of attrition.

Although Washington has made it clear that for now it wants to pursue a diplomatic and economic approach in pressuring Iran, nevertheless the US military seems to be taking all necessary steps to be ready for the worst. It has deployed advanced ground-based and sea-based missile defence systems in the Arabian Gulf region and in the Mediterranean waters off the Israeli coast.

Washington has also increased its intelligence-gathering activities in Iran, putting into use all of its high-tech capabilities, including sending drones into Iranian airspace.

The influx of more forces to the region, along with war posturing through military exercises and increased threats, has heightened the tensions between the deployed forces, which now sail or fly by each other in proximity. This raises the likelihood of an encounter that could quickly escalate.

It is worth noting that there are no communication lines between US and Iranian militaries that could help to quickly defuse tensions arising from unintended incidents. The two communicate via third parties for the most part.

Sailors and pilots from the US and Arab Gulf countries who have been on recent patrols in the region could give us a good idea about the daily encounters they have had with their Iranian counterparts, which is always a cause of concern for senior commanders.

"It only takes one trigger-happy hot-tempered officer on either side to spark a war in the region," said one Gulf Arab military official who asked not to be named.

"If there is no political progress and the military build-up continues we could be headed towards an inevitable war." Tehran might even find itself compelled to fire the first shot in a pre-emptive attack if western sanctions escalate and pose a serious threat to the regime.

Riad Khawaji is the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis