Although many U.S. officials say they believe the United States would be victorious in a fight, Iran's advances have raised concerns over U.S. vulnerabilities at the start of a conflict in the gulf, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
U.S. and Middle East analysts say Iran's build up of anti-ship missiles and its fleet of fast-attack boats and submarines could quickly damage or destroy U.S. ships.
Michael Eisenstadt, a former military adviser to the Pentagon and the State Department, said the U.S. Navy is developing new systems to defend against Iran's new capabilities, but added such defenses will not be deployed for several months.
"We're behind and we're catching up," Eisenstadt said. "But if there's a conflict in the near term, we may not be completely ready."
U.S. forces would likely recover quickly from any early losses, Eisenstadt said, but Iranian leaders could claim a psychological victory, especially if international media showed images of destroy U.S. ships in the gulf.
"A lot of Iranian ships would be at the bottom of the gulf, but [Iran] would be able to point to a victory," Eisenstadt said. "The outcome would never be in doubt when you're dealing with the most powerful military in the world. But in their minds they would have shown the world that if you mess with us, you'll pay a heavy price."
Meanwhile, U.S. ships are being sent to the gulf, even though last week Iran's Foreign Ministry called the presence of U.S. warships in the gulf a "real threat" to the region's security.
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said although sending ships to the area risks igniting conflict, there are no good alternatives.
"It is a dilemma," a Middle East intelligence official said. "When the Navy ships are in the [Strait of Hormuz], they are vulnerable to attack. But if you were to take them away, the gulf countries would feel more vulnerable. And already they feel very, very vulnerable."