The spat between the United States and China over the recent naval incident in the South China Sea recalls another standoff involving the U.S. Navy a year ago.
On January 6, 2008, five Iranian speed boats circled three U.S. Navy warships. Before they turned away, one of the U.S. ships was reportedly on the verge of firing at the Iranian vessels. “I do not have a direct link with my counterpart in the Iranian Navy,” Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, told reporters in the aftermath of the incident.
That could change soon. Congress is crafting a proposal to set up a hotline between Iranian and U.S. naval officials operating in the Persian Gulf.
The resolution, introduced today by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Geoff Davis (R-KY), calls for the United States to negotiate an “Incidents At Sea Arrangement” with Iran along the lines of the 1972 agreement that helped prevent naval incidents between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The arrangement between Washington and Moscow called for measures to avoid collisions; a requirement to maintain a safe distance from enemy ships under surveillance; and an obligation to inform vessels of submarine maneuvers near them. The agreement ended a series of incidents — ranging from ships bumping into one another to aircraft coming dangerously close to each other — that the two superpowers worried could set off a more serious confrontation.
Today, U.S.-Iranian naval interactions in the Persian Gulf pose a similar risk. A transit route for 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil trade, the Gulf is host to numerous U.S. naval ships. American ships operating in the Gulf currently have little or no protocol for dealing with the Iranian navy, which includes six submarines, five principal surface ships, 320 coastal and patrol ships, five mine warfare ships, and 21 amphibious ships. “This is a very volatile area,” said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last year. “The risk of an incident, and of an incident escalating, is real.”
The 30-cent jump in oil prices that followed the January 2008 skirmish between U.S. and Iranian ships is a preview of what a more serious confrontation in the Gulf could mean for energy prices and the world economy. Of course, should an open confrontation between the U.S. and Iranian navies occur, the situation could quickly escalate out of control with dire military, humanitarian, and political repercussions.
An “Incidents At Sea Arrangement” between the United States and Iran would help protect American lives and treasure in the world’s most important strategic oil chokepoint. It would also start a dialogue between the two countries that could help build trust and establish momentum for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, a top priority for the Obama administration.