A recent incident with Indian fishermen shows how easily Iran and the U.S. could slip into a conflict neither wants but may find hard to avoid.
Once again, there are worries that Iran might attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz in a confrontation with the United States or, even less likely, in retaliation for U.S. and European economic sanctions against Iran.
In Washington, though, Iran’s rumblings aren’t taken too seriously: Not only is it unlikely that Iran’s navy could actually close the straits, but it utterly lacks the capacity to sustain a battle at sea against what would be an all-out counterattack by U.S. naval forces to clear the waterway.
Despite strong words from some Iranian politicians, senior Iranian officials – including Iran’s foreign minister – have clearly stated that closing Hormuz isn’t an option. Among other things, closing the straits would instantly shut off Iran’s own oil exports. Most recently, Alireza Tangsiri, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps navy, said: “We say that common sense does not dictate that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz as long as it makes use of it.”
But U.S. military planners do worry about the proliferation of small Iranian naval vessels and mini-subs in the Persian Gulf, and it’s the danger of an unplanned or accidental clash involving those forces and the American fleet that holds the greatest danger of a military confrontation between the two states. And, a July 16 incident involving a small boat manned by fisherman from India that was fired on by U.S. forces puts an exclamation point to worries about an escalation leading to war.
Just over a year ago, I attended a conference sponsored by the American Iranian Council, at which a former and a current senior U.S. military commander delivered sober warnings that a war between the United States and Iran could erupt in the Persian Gulf, sparked by miscalculations between the naval forces of the two countries. Admiral William Fallon, the commander of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) from March 2007 to March 2008, called for confidence-building measures between Washington and Tehran’s navies, including a direct dialogue between their naval commanders in the Gulf.
Similarly, Col. David Crist, senior adviser to the commander of U.S. Centcom, suggested an accord modeled on the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement, which was designed to prevent or contain accidental encounters at sea. At present, Col. Crist said, U.S. forces in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf suffer from "tactical to strategic ignorance" about Iranian command-and-control policies. "It's unclear," he said, "how decisions are made from the top all the way down to the level of commanders in the Persian Gulf." Crist added that he was concerned that a "bumping incident" could "quickly spiral out of control."
Admiral Fallon and Colonel Crist’s concerns were vindicated by a recent case of violence involving the U.S. navy and an Indian civilian ship – which should have garnered far more attention than it has gotten.
Had their words been heeded, it’s possible that we could have avoided the July 16 incident in which sailors aboard the Rappahannock, a U.S. Navy fuel supply ship, fired on a small, Indian fishing vessel with an eight-member crew, killing one Indian fisherman and wounding three others. In a half-hearted apology, which expressed U.S. “condolences” over the killing, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi couldn’t resist adding that the Indian “vessel disregarded non-lethal warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship.” However, had the vessel been an Iranian fishing boat – or, worse, a confused Iranian military patrol boat – the action could have been a prelude to a tit-for-tat escalation with incalculable consequences, making Admiral Fallon’s warning prescient indeed.
What made the July 16 attack even more harrowing is that less than a week earlier the United States had dispatched a third aircraft carrier to Persian Gulf area early so it would arrive before one of two carriers currently in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea rotates out. The deployment tops off what has been a steady buildup of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf since January, which has included doubling the number of minesweepers in the region, and deploying mine-detecting helicopters. Earlier this month, the United States also dispatched the USS Ponce, a refurbished naval vessel designed to serve as a floating forward base for military operations, including the ability to create an at-sea barracks for hundreds of Special Operations forces at a later date.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy