Eyeball to Eyeball in the Persian Gulf

Monday, December 24, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

Despite critical strategic importance and escalating military deployment, reliable mechanisms to alleviate tension in the waters of the Persian Gulf region remain weak or non-existent. Three major wars during the past three decades have created one of the most volatile regions in the world, an area that is also the hub to nearly half the energy needs of the industrialized world.

Glaring issues in the region's maritime arena, specifically the physical proximity of naval vessels of the United States and Iran, have the potential to ignite an already heated political and military
climate. Perpetual preoccupation with the US-Iran rift has left little time or resources to establish prudent measures to thwart unwanted military escalation.

The US and Iran are eyeball to eyeball in the Persian Gulf, where maritime borders between Iran and Iraq remain murky. Considering recent incidents involving British sailors temporarily apprehended by Iran, it is clear that the risks of an accidental clash are running high. This threat is heightened by the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the country's most powerful military unit branded as terrorists by the US, shoulders the main responsibility in protecting Iran's territorial waters.

Iran is a major regional power because its size, geography, population, lengthy coastlines and strategic islands award it a prominent, strategic position in the Persian Gulf. The US has a vested interest in the affairs of the Persian Gulf because of its traditional reliance on energy imports from the region - imports that are projected to increase. According to one estimate, total US demand for oil will increase 40% by 2025. Washington considers the Persian Gulf region as vital to national interests and has long sought to preserve its stability through an extensive forward military presence.

But the US cannot solve all the region's problems and must desist from unilateral actions that would likely fuel regional instabilities and incite anti-American sentiments already entrenched in the region.

In light of an increased US-Iran dialogue, and the latest US intelligence report indicating that Tehran has no current nuclear weapons program, new possibilities have emerged to de-escalate bilateral tensions. Obviously, this requires deft diplomacy from both sides. Otherwise, the region, and the world, may witness another unfortunate case of missed opportunities.

The time is right to make an intervention in the Cold War-like impasse between Iran and the US. Because the bilateral relationship is rife with mutual suspicions and mistrusts, it is time to draw from fruitful maritime pacts of the past, such as the US-USSR or India-Pakistan agreements on "incidents at sea". Such dialogue may help set relations between the two countries on the right track, off the path to confrontation, and in line with the provisions of international law.

It is well possible that a joint study conducted by Americans and Iranians, and pitched to both sides in a confidential manner, would have a decent chance of serious consideration in today's environment - one marked with uncertainties, but untapped possibilities as well.

Today in the Persian Gulf, the US and Iran are engaged in what could be called "gunboat diplomacy". Such engagement stretches back to military skirmishes of the 1980s, including the blunder of the USS Vincennes' downing of an Iranian passenger jet. Past incidents are obstacles to any maritime agreement between the two rivals - foes whose naval operational readiness in the Persian Gulf has long been directed against each other.

Considering current naval force projections, ironing out an efficient crisis-prevention maritime agreement is a serious policy challenge. A successful pact will only be reached through an in-depth understanding of each side's security priorities, and an emphasis on preventing unwanted, even accidental, confrontation. Such an agreement would at least provide minimal maritime safety.

Dwarfed by the preponderant power of the US, Iran pursues "asymmetrical" naval warfare. This factor may prove to complicate any offense-defense balance.

No matter how beneficial an incident at sea agreement might be, it could be viewed in Tehran as a restriction of the sovereign rights of the coastal states. Washington might consider a pact as unfairly fettering the US Navy's freedom of navigation and force deployment.

Only careful consideration of the concerns of both sides coupled with careful wording that would not alter settled doctrines and strategies will yield the mini-breakthrough such an agreement would recommend. This is the only path towards a prudent mechanism to prevent conflict.

An incident at sea agreement must make creative and explicit provisions to avoid accidental war. This could range from advanced notices on military maneuvers to assistance in disaster management at sea, and possibly to new communication links and improvements in the present de facto rules of interaction.

This requires a study of the various scenarios for "accidents" at sea. Some examples are submarine collision, surface ship collision and false alarms. Establishing confidence-building and practical measures will reduce risks at sea. The proposed study would also examine the present "rules of engagement". Also, a preparatory study must review the existing communication links between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf with the goal of providing for fail-safe and secure communication.

Above all, any study or subsequent agreement must be "delinked" from the larger outstanding problem between the US and Iran.

As military and Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman has correctly stated: "The entire history of the Cold War indicates it is better to talk to hostile regimes and to try to prepare the way for limited cooperation and a better future."

Ideally, an incident at sea agreement could activate formal contacts and, perhaps, a future joint US-Iran maritime security commission focused on a mutually satisfactory risk-avoidance approach.

For the moment, however, creating an initial "zone of agreement" is the first step. Identifying areas of mutual interest with respect to strategic priorities is absolutely integral to establishing an incident at sea agreement.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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