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

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

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.

Referring to the buildup, a U.S. military official told the New York Times: “This is a complex array of American military power that is tangible proof to all of our allies and partners and friends that even as the U.S. pivots toward Asia, we remain vigilant across the Middle East.” Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. chief of naval operations, warned in March that the naval forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps “have on occasion violated decorum and rules of the road.”

In the July 16 attack, in which investigations are underway, the Indian fishermen dispute the U.S. assertion that warning shots were fired. Muthu Muniraj, a 28-year-old fisherman, told Reuters: “We had no warning at all from the ship, we were speeding up to try and go around them and then suddenly we got fired at. We know warning signs and sounds and there were none; it was very sudden. My friend was killed, he’s gone. I don’t understand what happened.”

Centcom, in an official statement, said: “An embarked security team aboard a U.S. Navy vessel fired upon a small motor vessel after it disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship near Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates today. In accordance with Navy force protection procedures, the sailors on the USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) used a series of non-lethal, preplanned responses to warn the vessel before resorting to lethal force. The U.S. crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach. When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun. The incident is under investigation.”

Perhaps the Pentagon is being forthright when it says that it warned the Indian vessel, but the fact that the ship either didn’t notice or didn’t heed the warning suggests that an Iranian naval ship might just as easily mistake U.S. intentions and ignore warnings. If that occurred and an Iranian commander or IRGC official took it upon himself to retaliate, a regrettable incident could easily escalate to all-out war. Equally plausible, imagine what might happen in the current climate if the IRGC navy seized a small American naval vessel and captured U.S. sailors, as it did in 2007 when 15 British naval personnel were taken prisoner at sea by Iran.

A perfect setting for a U.S.-Iran clash, though certainly unintended, might be the scheduled September naval exercises in the Persian Gulf. From September 16-27, twenty nations will conduct region-wide mine sweeping exercises as a show of force in response to recent threats by Iran to shut down the Straits of Hormuz. The exercise, according to a statement released by Centcom, will focus on “the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf.”

At the American Iranian Council conference, as I wrote at the time, Fallon came down strongly on the side of a broad political dialogue between the United States and Iran that goes beyond the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to include a wide range of issues of mutual concern. Those might include security in the Persian Gulf, terrorism, drug trafficking, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among others. “The United States has to be proactive,” Fallon said. “You’ve got to get people from both sides to sit down and talk about what matters. If you’re going to make progress on this, it’s going to happen outside the public limelight, probably talking to someone you’ve never heard of.”