Iran is again front-page news, on this occasion for threatening the United States Navy. A lengthy featured article in the Washington Post describes how Iran has obtained new sophisticated anti-ship missiles and has added fast attack boats and submarines. It has also adopted new tactics involving swarming attacks that would put US vessels in a 360-degree battle environment, testing the ability of the conventional warships to maintain effective defense in all directions simultaneously.

None of this is really new. Wargames in 2002 and Pentagon studies in 2009 and again earlier this year confirmed that the US Navy would have considerable difficulty in dealing with the Iranian tactics. I reported the same in April of this year in my Deep Background column in the print edition of The American Conservative. Not surprisingly, the Post and I are viewing the same development in slightly different ways. For me, Iran’s capabilities are just one more reason why a war with all its unintended and unanticipated consequences would have the potential to turn catastrophic with one or more US Navy ships going to the bottom and oil going past $200 a barrel.

For the Post, this is one more indication of the threat that Iran poses to US interests.  Joby Warrick, who is the go-to journalist for the Post coverage of Iran, mixes opinion with fact, a not uncommon feature of the paper’s foreign coverage. He begins his story with “Iran is rapidly gaining new capabilities to strike at US warships in the Persian Gulf…”  raising “concerns about US vulnerabilities during the opening hours of a conflict in the gulf.” Warrick carefully avoids the central issue, which is that Iran could not take the offensive against the US Navy and any attack staged by it would follow an attack by either the US or Israel or the two in combination. In other words, the threat is only a threat if the US and Israel make it so by striking first. Warrick also trots out the oft-repeated justification for war in the gulf, Iran’s “nuclear facilities….which the United States believes are civilian covers for an Iranian drive to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.” Actually, the United States believes no such thing. The CIA has stated that Iran has not made the political decision to acquire nuclear weapons.

Warrick writes, “Analysts have…cautioned that a conflict could be sparked by an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz…in retaliation for international sanctions” in an attempt to make Tehran appear to be the potential aggressor. And other developments in Iran are likewise noted, “Iran [is] making steady progress in developing ballistic missiles capable of striking targets in Israel and beyond… Tehran [is] also enhancing its well established capacity to launch terrorist attacks using surrogates such as Hezbollah…that operates a network of cells around the world.” Warrick then cites the Post’s repeated but dubious assertion that Iran has been behind terrorism worldwide and quotes no less than Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, who advises that Iran can attack targets globally, and it is “naïve to believe that it does not have the capacity to launch attacks in the United States.”

Actually, it is naïve to believe that Iran is some kind of Islamic superpower able to project itself worldwide. If Iran’s capabilities were as described by Warrick and Pletka it would be a good reason to be hesitant about going to war. Warrick clearly wants to promote and not spoil the more favorable narrative that Tehran threatens all of us. In reality, Iran is far behind Israeli and US military capabilities in every significant area and its sponsorship of terrorism is far from proven. Washington’s right to have a massive military and naval presence in the Middle East is unquestioned by the Post as is Israel’s right to attack Iran preemptively. But defensive measures by Iran in the face of five years of increasingly specific threats from Washington and Tel Aviv are somehow sinister.