Is a U.S.-Iran War Inevitable?

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Al-Alam / AFP / Getty

A video grab off the Iranian Arabic-language television station Al-Alam shows British servicewoman Faye Turney, who was among the British sailors seized last week at gunpoint by Iran in northern Gulf waters.

You wouldn't be wrong to wonder if Iran hasn't lost its mind seizing the 15 British marines and sailors, and in so doing, handing Bush a casus belli even he couldn't have imagined.

But then again you'd be missing the grim fatalism that has settled over Iran of late, the resigned belief that a war with the U.S. is all but inevitable. This week Iranian diplomats are telling interlocutors that, yes, they realize seizing the Brits could lead to a hot war. But, they point out, it wasn't Iran that started taking hostages — it was the U.S., when it arrested five members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Erbil in Northern Iraq on January 11. They are diplomats, the Iranians insist. They were in Erbil with the approval of the Kurds and therefore, they argue, are under the protection of the Vienna Convention.

Iranian grievances, real and perceived, don't stop there. Tehran is convinced the U.S. or one of its allies was behind the March 2006 separatist violence in Iranian Baluchistan, which ended up with 20 people killed, including an IRGC member executed. And the Iranians believe there is more to come, accusing the U.S. of training and arming Iranian Kurds and Azeris to go back home and cause problems. Needless to say the Iranians are not happy there are American soldiers on two of its borders, as well as two carriers and a dozen warships in the Gulf. You call this paranoia? they ask.

The Bush Administration is doing nothing to allay Tehran's paranoia. With the largest buildup in the Gulf since the start of this Iraq war, it's actually fanning it. You have to wonder if Bush is counting on the Iranians' overreacting the way they did when they seized our embassy in 1979. And lest we forget, this was driven by paranoia that we were plotting to destroy the revolution.

Add this to the rest of the bad news coming out of the Gulf, and things look pretty grim. The "surge," despite what some claim, has barely made a dent in the violence in Iraq. Our Arab allies are jumping ship, apparently as fast as they can. At the opening of the Arab summit on Wednesday, Saudi King Abdallah accused the U.S of illegally occupying Iraq. The day before, the leader of the United Arab Emirates sent his foreign minister to Tehran to tell the Iranians he would not allow the U.S. to use UAE soil to attack Iran. That leaves us with Kuwait and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to face Iran.

I called up an Arab Gulf security official and asked him what he thought about it all. He said the view from his side of the Gulf is that if Iran does not soon release the Brits, a war between the U.S. and Iran is in the cards. "I for one am taking all the cash I can out of my ATM," he said before hanging up.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down