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.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.”