How Drama on the High Seas Could Spark a U.S-Iran War
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

How Drama on the High Seas Could Spark a U.S-Iran War


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.

September 16, 2012 at 19:48

Robert or Mohammed, whatever your name is, your article stinks.  Maybe a ne job likeused car saleman would be better suitrd for you?

August 19, 2012 at 18:12

In times like this, smaller boats had better stay away from larger boats, pure and simple. Who wants to be blown out of the water? I would think suicide boats or crazy drunken skippers. So heave ho and let's enjoy the fun.

[...] like a security dilemma. So, even if my characterization of Japanese intentions is correct, the misinterpretations and reactions that might be triggered could destabilize the [...]

[...] that Washington learned that the fishermen were Indian. Had they been Iranian, the story may have played out very differently. With tensions at a fever pitch, an incident like this could easily be the [...]

[...] How Drama on the High Seas Could Spark a U.S.-Iran War      (The Diplomat) 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. [...]

July 31, 2012 at 16:21

While this article talks about how "accidentally" Iranian boats could cause an "incident", it fails to recognize the incident in which a US Naval vessel "accidentally" blew up an Iranian civilian airliner causing the deaths of more than 100 Iranian civilians! 
There are two sides to the issue and increased US Naval presence in the region can bring about increased US "mistakes" and "accidents" as well leading to the deaths of many innocents in the US Navy's overzealous goal of self-defense and security. 

David E. Shellenberger
July 31, 2012 at 06:51

The US government's provocations and presence are intended to risk an "accidental" war, which the US government would blame on Iran. If the US government wished to avoid yet another unnecessary war, it would end its provocations and leave the area.

July 31, 2012 at 03:35

yea your right, the us is the bad guy in all of this , HELLO ITS A HUGE NAVAL SHIP THAT SAY US NAVY ALL OVER IT, IF YOU SEEE THAT ITS COMMON SENSE TO GO THE OTHER WAY UNLESS YOUR LOOKING FOR TROUBLE ,  im in afghanistan in the army and i know how threats come disquized as common dressed people we live in a state where in the militaryt where your life i son the line thousands of miles away from your families , no chances can be taken if they are warned and dont heed them , they forfewited theyre life im not gonna risk my life to save his

July 31, 2012 at 03:30

What kind of right did the USN vessel had to fire upon a fishing trawler .?? dear yanki

Robert Dreyfuss
July 29, 2012 at 21:15

It doesn't help the cause of dialogue by referring to either side as "terrorist" states. There is a conflict between the US and Iran, and there is some terrorism on either side, if you include the assassination of Iranian scientists. (Most so-called terrorism involves the Iran-Israel conflict.) Using intemperate language makes things worse.

July 29, 2012 at 17:23

Would the Iranians want to talk to the number one terrorist state in the world (the US)?

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Phil Army
July 29, 2012 at 12:19

The Iran shall observed the law on international waters for the benefit of the whole world, no one ever any human being shall owned the sea it's a God's creation whatever belief we may have, freedom to navigate the world freely for the common good of all, if ever the Iran close the straight of  Hormuz, they will going to answer it from the world community… US navy is a big help to maintain the freedom of maneuvers to secure world economy and peaceful navigation on that straight of Hormuz, like the Chinese communist they have no authority to conquer the territory of any nation and disrespect the Philippine sovereignty as what the communist did to Spratley island and Scarborough shoal at the WESTERN PHILIPPINE SEA, PHILIPPINES, SOUTH EAST ASIA..

Tyler Durden
July 29, 2012 at 09:05

>However, USN ships should rely less on electronic signals for warnings and more on visual/ audio warnings.
Yes, because it's SO much easier to see exact warnings while underway.  There's a good reason the use of semaphores has gone the way of the Dodo.  Bridge-to-Bridge VHF comms, etc. are superior to some kid waving flags around.  Take it from someone who actually spent time in the USN.

July 29, 2012 at 06:32

Sure, setting up talks with the #1 terrorist state in the world will suddenly make them act rational and reasonble. The sovjets were rational actors, in a rational conflict between two systems within kind of the same Christian civilization, that may make all the difference for talking and rationalizing a conflict…

July 29, 2012 at 01:26

While I don’t disagree with the American Iranian Council-member, Fallon’s, suggestion that both the US and Iranian officials need to sit down and discuss possible alternatives to the issues that they have between them I do, however, feel that the US should maintain an aggressive stance to ensure that a first strike from any Iranian vessel be deterred. Furthermore, it the US should stress that if this were to occur, would undoubtedly lead to a wider war.
However, disagree with the author’s thesis that if the US were to accidently attack an Iranian vessel would ultimately lead toward an escalation to war. The US must maintain itself as a distinct and powerful force in the Middle East if it is to seek a continuation of its hegemonic power in the region. Moreover, if this were to occur, the Iranians would back down most assuredly.
The crew of the US vessel, Rappahannock, had every right to fire upon the Indian vessel. Furthermore, if that vessel had been Iranian the Rappahannock should have sunk the vessel. When dealing with authoritarian regimes, like Iran, force is the only language that they understand. The US must sustain an offensive posture in the Middle East. That is the only deterrent to war. Weak US foreign policy leads to international unrest; Syria, Russia, China, Iran.
The US was not confronted with these threats during the Bush Administration because said administration executed a stern foreign policy toward any aggressive state. President Obama’s foreign policy focuses too much on accords and appeasement and is why there has been so much instability and unrest in the world over the last four years.
The US is still the same great power that it has always been, and unfortunately, the Obama Administration is setting the table for the next administration (which may be a Republican administration – even if isn’t until 2016) to engage in a wider war with the Middle East to reestablish regional hegemony. A liberal or passive US foreign policy will not suppress authoritarian regimes; suppression must be maintained by brute force.
If the US has a weakness it is in its belief that all nations are as educated, respectful, and liberal-minded as the US ‘perceives’ itself to be within the international community. This, therefore, leaves itself with an international perception of feebleness which mistakenly conveys that the US may be in some sort of decline among super powers – which it is not. This mistake leaves the US open to the possibility of an attack, or worse, the creation of a Middle Eastern bloc, which stands opposed to all western permeation, thereby losing its reign over the regional hegemony it presently maintains. It is paramount that barbarism always be met with barbarism. 

July 29, 2012 at 01:15

Iran wants a confrontation. The civil war in Syria could be the flash point. Russia under Mr. Putin clearly seeks to strengthen Russian influence around the world. Iran, with Russian acquiescence, will start a fight soon. China hopes to weaken the influence of the USA and profit from the chaos. Great havoc is in the making. The USA should protect our friends as best we can when the DOGS of war attack. God has blessed us with accessible resources and we had the best economic system. If the excessive burden of over-bearing federal regulation and taxation is eased, we will weather the storms ahead in good shape.

July 28, 2012 at 23:13

Brad you are correct that an oil tanker blowing up would have destroyed the port causing tremendous destruction.  However I do not know what the "non lethal warnings " were if any. They should have fired warning shots. If required. The fisherman who died was cut into three pieces by the gunfire, and he was the sole bread earner of the family, and these fishermen are daily wage earners.  Poorest of the poor.
In an earlier incident in the same region  the US Navy shot down an Iranian Airways plane with two missiles falsely thinking that it was a warplane and descending whereas it was climbing and was within the civilian corridor. It was sad because all the 150 odd passengers got killed. The US government of course says " regret" but never apologizes.
These types of incidents can easily trigger an escalation so the US Navy needs to be careful and back down.

July 28, 2012 at 08:18

An oil ship would have MUCH less leeway in letting ships near it.  Imagine the destructon a Cole style attack would have on a ship with 2 inches of armor thats filled with gasoline, jet fuel, etc.  That would have closed down one of the world's largest ports if it ended in a succesful attack.  However, USN ships should rely less on electronic signals for warnings and more on visual/ audio warnings. 

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