A second American super carrier with a flotilla of guided-missile warships reached the Arabian Sea on Thursday as the threat of confrontation loomed larger over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow chokepoint that Tehran threatens to close in retaliation for any embargo on its oil exports.
Verbal sabre rattling from both sides, at odds over Iranian nuclear ambitions, escalated.
Iran issued a not-so-veiled warning to its Arab neighbours across the Gulf – many of them close America allies – of the perils of letting Washington call the shots in the oil-rich region. "I am calling to all countries in the region, please don't let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position," said Iran's Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, speaking during a visit to Turkey.
President Barack Obama has pointedly said all options – code for military action – remain on the table in the standoff with Tehran over its nuclear program. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid down what he called two "red lines" last week. One was if Tehran's ruling mullahs made good on their threat to close the vital Strait of Hormuz sea lane. The other was if Iran developed nuclear weapons.
Still, there were unconfirmed reports of some attempt at behind-the-scenes dialogue. According to the semi-official Fars news agency of Iran, President Obama sent a letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seeking "direct negotiations." Washington declined comment on the letter's contents.
As the cacophony of accusations and threats rose, miscalculation, rather than deliberate war remained the gravest danger.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-installed Shah, tensions between America and Iran's theocracy have flared repeatedly into hostilities, leaving hundreds dead, warships sunk and aircraft shot down.
In recent weeks, small Iranian missile-firing launches have conducted "swarm attacks" in the narrow, confined Strait of Hormuz, where a constant stream of tankers transits one of the world's vital maritime trade lanes. Those sorts of hounding – potentially suicidal – attacks also preceded the bloodiest U.S.-Iranian confrontation, when a trigger-happy captain of the USS Vincennes, mistakenly believing an Iranian fighter-bomber was closing in on his guided-missile cruiser, shot down an unarmed Iranian Airbus in 1988, killing all 290 on board the routine airline flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai.
Revolutionary Guard commanders, unimpressed by America's massive naval superiority, said this week that Iranian submarines lying in ambush could torpedo the hulking nuclear-powered and armed carriers, each with a crew of 5,000 and nearly 100 warplanes.
Unconfirmed published reports also have said small, fast, Iranian launches, some plastered with slogans taunting the United States, have been pestering American warships so closely that warning shots have been fired in recent days as the crisis over Tehran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons worsens.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's Republican rivals were ratcheting up the rhetoric, vying to sound the most hawkish in taking the fight to Tehran. The political risk for the President isn't trivial. The last Democratic president to fail to win re-election was in 1980. Then Iran humiliated Jimmy Carter, whose failure to rescue American diplomats held hostage for 444 days doomed his chances for a second term.
European countries meet Monday to consider slapping Tehran with an embargo on Iranian oil. But nearly three-quarters of Iran's oil goes to four Asian countries; China, India, South Korea and Japan. Only Italy, with its usual Libyan sources disrupted, is currently a major European buyer of Iranian crude. China has said it won't stop buying Iranian crude.
Although U.S. firms don't buy Iranian oil, the stage was set for an international showdown when Mr. Obama signed legislation Dec. 31 that blacklists any company or financial institution dealing with Iran's central bank. For Iran, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, that ban could force its buyers into the grey zone of using intermediaries or seeking alternative suppliers.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, angered Tehran by saying it could easily increase output to meet the needs of Iran's customers.
Arab powers, notably Saudi Arabia and Iraq, regard Iran as a meddlesome Persian and Shia rival for regional dominance.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that military action in the Gulf would be "a catastrophe" that could spiral out of control and "fan the flames" of smouldering sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region.