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."