Every few weeks comes a new report that speedboats manned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Navy have come dangerously close to US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf.
The latest incident occurred last week as a US aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, entered the Strait of Hormuz on its way to support US operations in Iraq against the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
Iranian boats came within 950 yards of the US ship and only moved away after the carrier sent helicopters to hover over the Iranians. Fortunately, the encounter ended without any casualties or damage. But that fortune could run out.
According to the US 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, there were 35 “unsafe and/or unprofessional” interactions between the US Navy and Iranian forces in the area last year, up from 23 in 2015. This year alone, there have been seven incidents.
The Strait of Hormuz –at its narrowest only 29 nautical miles wide – is particularly hazardous; military vessels and oil tankers from many nations squeeze through this chokepoint between Iran and the United Arab Emirates en route to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
Another dangerous waterway is the Bab el-Mandeb strait – 18 miles at its narrowest – that controls access to the Suez Canal at the northern end of the Red Sea and connects with the Indian Ocean. Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been accused of attacking ships there including a Saudi vessel in January, causing an explosion in which two crew members died.
Iranian officials deny responsibility for these incidents or assert that the US Navy is violating Iran’s territorial waters. That was the case when sailors on two small US patrol craft mistakenly strayed into Iranian waters in January 2016. The Iranians held the Americans for about 15 hours and released them after then Secretary of State John Kerry intervened with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.
Iran argues that the US Navy has no business being in the Persian Gulf so many thousands of miles from American shores. However, US Central Command has assumed responsibility for guaranteeing freedom of navigation in these waters since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when the US reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers that had become targets for Iranian mines. The US role has continued in support of operations in Iraq and more recently against ISIS.
The fault for recent incidents lies with the IRGC Navy for risky operations in close proximity to much larger US ships in waters that afford little room for maneuver or mistakes. No other navy in the world acts this way and only the professionalism of the Americans has prevented a tragedy that could escalate into a broader confrontation between the US and Iran.
Senior American military commanders have long spoken about the need for some kind of mechanism to communicate with their Iranian counterparts to de-escalate or prevent such actions. This is a vital topic that should be given priority and addressed in diplomatic channels between the two countries.
So far, the Trump administration has adopted a tough rhetorical stance toward Iran and imposed new sanctions against Iranian and other entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program.
There has been no apparent effort to communicate with the Iranian government at a high official level. In a message to the Iranian people last week on the occasion of Nowruz, the New Year celebrated by Iranians and others to mark the spring equinox, President Trump made no reference to the Iranian government at all.
A career US Foreign Service officer meets infrequently with his Iranian counterpart and diplomats from five other nations on a Joint Commission created by the 2015 nuclear agreement. The topic of conversation there is Iran’s nuclear activities and implementation of the nuclear deal, not other policies that impact the United States and US allies.
So far there is no reason to expect that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will seek to replicate the rapport with Zarif that Kerry developed during long months of nuclear negotiations. Tillerson may choose to avoid Zarif completely and vice-versa given the fraught domestic politics in Tehran. However, it would be wise for Tillerson, in conjunction with the Pentagon and the National Security Council, to authorize a US diplomat to explore the possibilities for a negotiation with Iran over an incidents at sea agreement or maritime hotline.
The Iranians may reject this idea as they have in the past. If so, the Trump administration would be in a better position for having tried and for publicizing that rejection. The risks of a shooting war in the Persian Gulf merit a serious diplomatic effort that could be part of a broader initiative for regional security.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.