The world has grown accustomed to Iranian bluster. But even by the standards of the Islamic Republic, Adm. Habibollah Sayari's recent call to deploy the Iranian navy near the U.S. coast is stunning.
The Pentagon knows, of course, that Iranian war vessels won't come near America's shores any time soon. Still, the loss of a sense of proportion revealed by the rhetoric of Iranian leaders tells us several things about the country's disorientation in the face of citizen uprisings in the region.
It also tells us that three years into President Barack Obama's term, the U.S. and Iran remain perilously close to confrontation.
Iran has lost its regional momentum. Tehran utilized America's many mistakes in the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration to expand its influence and fill the power vacuum left by a declining United States. The enemies Iran could not defeat were crushed by the U.S. military, and the standing it could not achieve on its own fell into Tehran's lap through the plummeting of America's regional status.
But after the brutal repression of its people following the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009, and the rise of the Arab populations elsewhere, Tehran has lost its strategic sense of direction.
Though the Islamic Republic had predicted an Arab Spring, it was nevertheless surprised by the absence of anti-Americanism in it. With no appetite among the Arab protesters to direct their anger against America, Iran faced great difficulty exploiting Arab frustrations. The Arab Spring has diminished Iran's ability to wield soft power in the region. And when the strength of a state declines, its desperation increases. Its statements grow more aggressive, and fear -- more than calculation -- guides its actions.
Yet, though it is preposterous to think that the American mainland is under some form of military threat by Iran, Tehran's disorientation has not reduced the risk of a U.S.-Iran confrontation. Indeed, U.S. military leadership has voiced its concerns that an accidental clash in the Persian Gulf could spiral out of control.
First, America's declining influence has created a vacuum in the region that begs to be filled. The ensuing jockeying for position and the creation of a new regional pecking order have given birth to geopolitical turmoil.
Second, this turmoil comes when most regional powers are suffering from unusual internal political weakness. Decisions about crucial strategic matters are increasingly made on the basis of domestic politics rather than geopolitical calculus.
This near-collapse of statecraft is clearly visible in Israel. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to limit its foreign policy maneuverability to whatever its fragile governing coalition can endure. Disproportionate foreign policy risks are accepted in order to prolong the life span of the coalition at the expense of Israel's long-term interest.
Egypt, Iraq and Syria all suffer from political instability. And while Saudi Arabia has managed to buy off its protesters, it will be facing a succession crisis in the next few years that could spark a Saudi Spring.
In Iran, political cannibalism within the elite has reached new heights. While this hasn't necessarily given birth to a new Iranian adventurism, it's paralyzed the state and weakened its ability to maneuver in a changing environment. This is particularly the case when it comes to crucial issues such as its relations with the United States.
Third, this paralysis is all the more dangerous in an environment in which the parties aren't speaking. This has led to a collapse of statecraft and an increase in bluster that could prove dangerous. One small spark could cause a conflagration.
The U.S. military leadership is rightfully worried about this situation. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, has repeatedly raised the lack of communication between the United States and Iran as a major concern. "We are not talking to Iran so we don't understand each other," Mullen said last month. "If something happens . . . it's virtually assured that we won't get it right." Mullen's diagnosis is on target, as evidenced by the escalation in Iranian bluster.
Talking to the Iranians is not guaranteed to resolve the fundamental issues that have created this dangerous atmosphere. But it might ensure that in the midst of the barking, there isn't an accidental bite.