With national attention focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, CNN describes US Naval wargames featuring Iran as the notional enemy. "The first message was routine enough: a 'Prepare to Deploy Order' sent through Naval communications channels to a submarine, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers and two minehunters. The orders didn't actually command the ships out of port .... but until now largely theoretical, prospect has become real: that the U.S. may be preparing for war with Iran." That dramatic beginning introduces a discussion of how dangerous war with Iran might be, yet how few the diplomatic prospects for reducing the tension are.
Readers might be forgiven for objecting that Iran has no east coast. It's entirely landlocked by Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east, though it does have an extensive southern coast which runs all the way from the Shatt al Arab to the Indian ocean, a route along which much of the world's tanker traffic must pass or sail near. But we get the point. Any conflict with Iraq will involve, at the minimum, naval action threatening the chief oil artery of the planet.
But the background omissions are more serious. It's not entirely true to say that "the U.S. may be preparing for war with Iran" like it was something wholly new. Iran has been at war with the United States for some time now. In fact, Iranian special forces are openly described as supporting attacks against US forces in Iraq. And since America has presumably responded, even just defensively, at some level America is already at war with Iran. Nor is it useful to describe the US diplomatic relationship with Iran to consist solely or even principally of negotiations over nuclear proliferation. It also includes such issues as Iran's involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. But the article successfully underscore the paradox at the heart of the problem: that while diplomacy is meant to prevent war, the threat of war is necessary for diplomacy to succeed.
"Nobody is considering a military option at this point," says an administration official. "We're trying to prevent a situation in which the president finds himself having to decide between a nuclear-armed Iran or going to war. The best hope of avoiding that dilemma is hard-nosed diplomacy, one that has serious consequences."
This single phrase, "the best hope of avoiding that dilemma is hard-nosed diplomacy, one that has serious consequences" encapsulates the Catch-22. Diplomacy requires threat; but threat runs the risk of escalation at the end of which is war.
If war actually breaks out, CNN had better hope that the USN has adequately prepared for conflict with Iran. Apart from the threat of mining the Straits of Hormuz, Iran has the capability of firing antiship missiles capable of striking even modern warships, as shown by the use of a C-802 against an Israeli corvette off the coast of Lebanon. Moreover, Iran may attempt to strike targets such as the Ras Tanura oil refinery in the Emirates which lie about 260 kilometers from the coast of Iran, not far from the US naval base at Manamah with long range missiles. Just how difficult this might be to stop was illustrated by the recent bombardment of Israel by Hezbollah. Despite the sophistication of Israeli defenses and the relative backwardness of Hezbollah, it remained a problem to the end. Here's an interesting discussion of the subject. Mine warfare isn't one of the better known suites of the USN. Here's a list of known mine countermeasures ships. FAS suggests a lot of money has recently been spent on developing mine countermeasures but very little is publicly available to describe these efforts.