Just as the Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference morphed largely into an exercise in lining up a coalition against Iran, so too is President George W. Bush’s first visit to Israel quickly becoming the latest round of Tehran-bashing. The trip, which was initially framed as an effort to jump-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, is now officially described as having a regional objective, to “diminish a potential threat posed by an Iran with a nuclear weapons capability” through the creation of a joint Arab-Israeli Front. It matters not that such a political melding is a fantasy somewhat akin to the Vietnamese “third force” invented by Graham Greene for his novel The Quiet American.
It was no coincidence that when Bush was greeted at the airport by Israeli President Shimon Peres, Peres carefully choreographed speech immediately referred to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Bush, apparently unaware of the director of national intelligence’s assessment that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program, agreed and went several steps further, excoriating Iran for its pursuit of an atom bomb, saying Iran is a “threat to world peace,” and warning that there would be “serious consequences” if U.S. warships were to be attacked. At a stop in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, Bush again picked up his main theme, describing how Iran threatens the security of the entire world.
Bush’s threatening comments, combined with the Jan. 6 encounter between Iranian vessels and three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz, are a reminder that there are many on both sides who would like to see war. Intelligence sources believe that the Iranian speedboats were under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) al-Quds special operations force and that it is quite possible that the Iranians were trying to provoke a shooting incident. The encounter involved Iranian speedboats apparently ignoring orders to back off or change course and also dropping objects into the water, forcing one ship to change course. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates initially appeared nonplused by the apparent storm-in-a-teakettle provocation, noting that there had been three or four similar exchanges in the past year.
The United States released two videos of the incident, including a recording of what it said was the verbal exchange between the two sides. This initially appeared to generally confirm the Defense Department account, though the perspective of the camera does not make it possible to judge just how close the Iranian boats actually came to the U.S. warships. It is not completely clear whether the U.S. vessels were in international waters, and the definition of international waters in the region is itself somewhat disputed. At its narrowest the Strait of Hormuz is only 21 miles wide, half of which is claimed by Oman and the United Arab Emirates and half by Iran as territorial waters. There is a generally recognized four-mile-wide commercial lane in the middle of the strait, one mile wide in each direction with a two-mile buffer in between, that is normally accepted as an international zone for ships moving between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. In the international zone, there are accepted norms for ships avoiding contact with other ships, but the United States Navy has no preemptive right to fire on vessels that it considers to be threatening unless those vessels pose a clear and unquestionable threat. The Iranian boats have the same right to access international waters as does the U.S. Navy, but they do not have the right to threaten another vessel by moving too close or too aggressively, though admittedly the definition of what constitutes a threat is subject to interpretation. Iran also considers the strait to be unambiguously part of its territorial waters, the international commercial lane notwithstanding, and it has claimed in the past that all warships passing through must seek prior permission to do so. Hence it felt that it was within its rights to challenge the U.S. presence. The U.S. does not recognize the Iranian territorial claim and does not routinely declare to the Iranians that there are warships in the area indeed, there is no mechanism to do so but Navy ships generally identify themselves in responding to Iranian patrol boats whenever challenged.
The U.S. Navy video showed several images, including three small launches moving near a U.S. ship. An audio recording included a voice from a U.S. ship telling one craft it was “straying into danger and may be subject to defensive measures.” The U.S. also reported that the small craft responded: “You will explode after a few minutes.” The “explode” is far from clear and the U.S. Navy is now admitting that the radio contact might not have come from the Iranian boats. It might even have been completely unrelated to the incident and not directed at the warships at all. Iran has rejected the footage as fake, released its own version, and accused Washington of trying to stir up tension in the region. There is speculation that the incident might have been staged to send a warning to the U.S. and its Gulf Arab allies on the eve of the Bush visit to the region, suggesting that Iran would aggressively defend its interests, but U.S. intelligence analysts believe that the provocative act was carried out by the IRG’s al-Quds force for domestic political reasons. It was primarily a response to conciliatory remarks made two days previously by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei suggested that there would be eventual dialogue and reconciliation with America, a position not shared by the Revolutionary Guard. According to the CIA analysis, the al-Quds force might have been attempting to draw the U.S. into a military response, thus heightening tensions, strengthening its own political position through exploitation of the American “threat,” and thereby undermining Khamenei. By this interpretation, the incident can be seen as the product of divisions in the Iranian government, and it is quite possible that the leadership in Tehran did not approve of the IRG provocation.
The U.S. response, which was generally restrained and far from being close to a shooting incident as presented in the media, reflected legitimate concern for the ships’ safety in light of the 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen, in which a small craft loaded with explosives staged a suicide attack that killed 17 sailors and almost sank the ship. Since the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran and cannot discuss areas that could potentially lead to conflict, Adm. William Fallon of the U.S. Central Command has reportedly been seeking to set up incident-response protocols and a hotline with the Iranians to prevent a minor incident escalating into an act of war. As is often the case, the soldiers and sailors are reluctant to rush into wars that the politicians like President Bush are much more inclined to embrace.
The lesson of the incident in the Persian Gulf, and the political hay that was made out of it by both sides, is that as long as the United States refuses to talk to Iran, the potential for something very small turning into something that would be devastating to both countries remains. President Bush still apparently dreams of confronting Iran, even if the imploding situation in Pakistan makes it unlikely that he will risk doing so. Israel makes no secret of the fact that it would like Washington to act, and Israel’s wishes are seldom denied in Washington. And then there are the hotheads on the Iranian side. The U.S. national interest in the Middle East would be best served by marginalizing those who want war and beginning to negotiate seriously. As Winston Churchill put it, “To jaw jaw is better than to war war.”