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Will Iran make good on its threat against US?

Iran warned U.S. aircraft carrier Stennis not to return to the Persian Gulf, but U.S. officials rejected the threat. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski has more.

Should the United States blink with Iran? Tehran has warned Washington against returning an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. The White House contends Tehran’s threat is just an attempt to deflect attention from the Islamic republic’s domestic problems and says the Navy will continue operations in the Gulf.

What happens next?

We turned to Graham T. Allison, a leading analyst of U.S. national security and defense policy in nuclear weapons and terrorism at Harvard, and Qamar-ul Huda, a scholar of Islam and theology, from the U.S. Institute of Peace. In emails to msnbc.com, they shared some thoughts on Iran's war of words -- and the possibility of an escalation.

Belfer Center

Graham T. Allison of the Belfer Center.

Iran has threatened to take military action if the U.S. keeps sending aircraft carriers into the Gulf. What is the probability Iran would make good on its threat?

ALLISON: Low. Iran must be aware that the U.S. will continue to send aircraft carriers into international waters regardless of Iranian threats, and that any direct military confrontation would not end well for Tehran. However, we face the risk of unauthorized or low-level skirmishes between U.S. and Iranian naval forces escalating into a broader conflict. 

HUDA: In March 2007, Iran captured 15 British sailors and marines from the Strait of Hormuz, and the government allowed the British embassy to be ransacked by protesters. Since the November 2011 United Nations report found that Iran has worked and may be working on attaining nuclear weapons, the United States and its allies are pressing harder to enforce sanctions against Iran. Essentially, relations with Iran have gone from bad to worse in a matter of five months.

Courtesy Qamar-ul Huda

Qamar-ul Huda of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

If the recent past is any indicator of events, Iran's threats must be taken seriously. A military attack by Iran against the U.S. would have a devastating strategic consequence for Iran. About less than 25 percent of U.S. imported oil comes from the Gulf region; however, China's oil supplies would be significantly threatened by a military conflict.

Iran's threats are not only directed at the U.S., but to the already unstable global economy. With the uncertainty of EU financial industry and U.S.'s weak economy, Iran is using this moment to test Western interests in the region.

What does Iran have to gain from a military confrontation with the U.S.?

ALLISON: It is certainly not in the rational self-interest of the Iranian state to provoke a confrontation with America, whose military dwarfs that of Iran. However, it is likely that certain elements within the regime would welcome such a confrontation, as they feel that American military action could bolster support for their government and distract the Iranian people from growing economic problems.

HUDA: Iran's military confrontation with the U.S. allows them to rein in dissenters, reformers and liberals, and embolden the power of the hardliners in Iran, namely the Revolutionary Guard institutions. Iranian hardliners welcome an escalation of conflict with the U.S. and the West because it allows them to consolidate their internal power. The elite of hardliners are still from the 1979 revolution period, and they understand that an anti-Western narrative is their core asset. With the recent shooting down of a U.S. spy drone near the Iran-Afghanistan border, and the capture of an [alleged] Afghan-American spy in Iran, Iranian hardliners in the government are trying to deflect the nuclear issue and simultaneously make a case of preventing a U.S.-led confrontation. Internally, Iran is using recent political events, including the Arab Spring protests, as justification to defend national sovereignty.

Iran has purchased from the Chinese and Russians sophisticated midget submarines, mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, and a fleet of small fast boats capable of naval warfare. Knowing their asymmetric  military power, and visible soft power in the Middle East, Iran will promptly leverage their power against Western interests.  

What does the U.S. have to gain from a military confrontation with Iran?

ALLISON: Although some argue that U.S. military action against Iran would be a relatively painless way to delay its nuclear program and maybe even inspire a popular uprising, my best judgment is that an attack is as likely to advance the date on which Iran tests a bomb as to delay it. A military confrontation with Iran would also overturn the chessboard in the Middle East, making America (and Israel) the issue for most of the people in the street and risk retaliation that could bring about a wider regional war. 

HUDA: The U.S. maintains that their military exercises are according to international maritime conventions and for the security of the region. By moving forward to counteract Iranian threats, the U.S. reassures their allies of their commitment to the region, and more importantly, it bolsters the U.S.-Gulf states alliance of limiting Iranian aggression. While a military escalation with Iran will lead to a deeper cold war with Iran, there is no other way to ensure that Iran will draw back. 

Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy Center of Government. For three decades, he has been a leading analyst of U.S. national security and defense policy with a special interest in nuclear weapons, terrorism and decision-making. He served as assistant secretary for The U.S. Department of Defense in the first Clinton Administration.

Huda is a senior program officer in the Religion and Peacemaking Center and scholar of Islam at U.S. Institute of Peace. He teaches conflict resolution, Islamic theology, Islam and Western studies at Georgetown University.

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