U.S./Iran Posturing Indicates More Severe Combat to Come:
Who Will Throw the War-Launch Punch?
Playing Battleship (Part 1 of 2)
Acts of taunting continue to occur in what resembles a relationship of sibling rivalry between the United States and Iran. Yet how long can either continue to make these close calls until one hothead administration blows its top? I have no intention to point a finger at either country with a “he started it!” point of view. Tensions between Iran and the U.S. date far back in history and continue on. From the involvement of the CIA in orchestrating a coup ousting Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1955 to American military protection from Iranian attacks of Kuwaiti oil tankers in 1987 and 1988, objectives that the countries hold in common are consistent: oil access and its vital trade route, the Strait of Hormuz.
From 1988 on, a series of short battles and standoffs continue, increasing military engagement in and around the Strait of Hormuz. The overall animosity and distrust has led to unnecessary tragedies, such as the American warship USS Vincennes that in 1988, shot down an Iranian Airbus after mistaking it for a F-14A Tomcat fighter jet, killing all 290 people on board. In 2008, a U.S. destroyer almost opened fire on an Iranian ship after receiving radio messages misinterpreted as an impending attack. News of the brief capture of U.S. sailors by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in January 2016 caught the attention of the U.S. general public. Many who follow world events on a surface level may have suffered from selective hearing once the words “U.S. naval captives” and “Iran” came about through the media. Although the U.S. navy was admittedly at fault for crossing into territorial waters, the brief crisis spurred memories of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis for many Americans. This, in turn, brought forth nationalist assumptions that strengthened the notion of Iran’s position in the “axis of evil.”
Each point of view from the opposing countries must be taken into account to fully understand how administrations and media skew public opinion and ultimately create a more unified animosity toward the other. There is a nuance of specific terminology government officials and the media use that create contradictory public assumptions. For example, U.S. media called the sailors “captured” and Iranian officials referred to the situation as the sailors being “detained.” This directly affects how the public views the incident. These official, yet conflicting statements made by the separate administrations leave citizens in both countries picking sides, predominantly backing their own government leaders. With strong public opinion comes a sense of nationalism and defense of one’s beliefs. These beliefs will ultimately lead to a cause for war when each side continues to live with such ardent hostility.
Nationalism and territorial rights are intertwined. The Strait of Hormuz is 20.75 miles across at its narrowest. In compliance with the Law of Sea Treaty’s 12-mile territorial sea clause, Iran and Oman share territorial water of the Strait of Hormuz and the right to regulate the waters to ensure the security of their country. Ships have the right of innocent passage, including military craft as transit vessels. In Article 16, Section III of the 1958 Geneva Convention, the rule is established that transit is innocent only “so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state.” A coastal state is given the right to take the necessary steps in its territorial sea to prevent passage that is not innocent. “This phraseology is nebulous enough as it stands; furthermore, the use of the word ‘prejudicial’ suggests that an actual injury to peace, good order, or security need not be taking place for the passage to be deemed no longer innocent. If a reasonable chance exists that such injury may be in the offing, the coastal state would be in a strong position to decide that the passage is not innocent and exclude the vessel from its territorial waters.”
Iran has maintained that a coastal State’s sovereignty is subject only to the exercise of the right of innocent passage of ships and that when straits are situated within the territorial sea of one or more States, the legal status of territorial waters must not be affected by the passage through straits used for international navigation. Iran is especially interested in regulating passage through the strait and that free transit or innocent passage exists only when states comply with pertinent regulations. Iran and the US have signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) III but neither has ratified it. Due to the value of the Strait of Hormuz, Iran still holds concerns regarding the Law of the Sea Treaty. Iran holds the belief that passage of other states’ naval ships from territorial waters is dependent on prior notification and observance of the requirements of innocent passage. Innocent passage is subjective, especially when dealing with an outlier country like Iran who wants to assert its presence within the world’s powers. The naval disputes that are occurring at an increasing rate have caused the U.S. and other countries to use military escort ships when crossing for security purposes.
Starting on Tuesday, August 23, 2016, four separate naval engagements occurred between the countries in one week. Four ships belonging to Iran’s IRGC were said to have intercepted two American vessels at high speed, coming within 300 yards of the USS Nitze. “The USS Nitze was accompanied by the guided missile destroyer USS Mason on what an official described as a ‘routine transit’ in international waters at the time of the incident.” The Nitze attempted to make radio contact 12 times with no response; the Iranian ships continued their approach, and the destroyer sounded five short blasts on its whistle, an international danger signal. Leaving the Nitze crew no choice, the vessel was forced to change its course at the expense of coming very close to offshore oilrigs to avoid the Iranian ships. Here, a reader must again consider the two countries’ interpretation of the word “intercept.” The legality of the interception of the vessel is likely dependent on learned bias.
The following day, American coastal patrol ships the Squall and the Tempest, said to be operating in international waters, were harassed by three boats from the IRGC Navy, “which crisscrossed the Tempest’s bow and created ‘a possible collision hazard’.” Later on, the same day, an Iranian patrol vessel approached the Tempest head-on; ignoring repeated multiple flare, radio, and loudspeaker warnings. The vessel turned away when the Squall then fired three warning shots from its 50-caliber gun. Again on Wednesday, the same patrol vessel that had incited the conflict with the Tempest, intercepted the Stout, a guided missile destroyer, three times. Cmdr. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, stated “the Stout maneuvered away and ‘employed devices,’ which he did not identify, in order to dissuade the Iranian vessel from further harassment.” Again, on September 4, 2016, seven Iranian fast-attack boats swarmed a coastal boat, the USS Firebolt. One boat came to a stop 100 yards in front of the American ship. In 2016, 35 Iranian fast-boat encounters occurred that were deemed unsafe and unprofessional.
The USS Mahan, a destroyer, fired warning shots and used radio calls, flares, and signals when five Iranian ships came 900 yards from three U.S. vessels entering the Strait on January 9, 2017. A US helicopter dropped smoke grenades to deter any further interference. On March 6, 2017, the USNS Invincible, a tracking ship, accompanied by three British Royal Navy ships, were forced to change course when multiple IRGS vessels came within 600 yards of the entourage. An unnamed US official stated that once again radio communications to Iranian ships were not answered. The official also did not disclose where in the Strait the incident occurred.
Iran’s stance on these events is quite different. Defense minister, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan, stated that naval control and patrols take place only in Iran’s territorial waters and Iran would take action if an intrusion were deemed aggressive. As well, Ayatollah Khamenei “underlined that security of the Persian Gulf region comes within the purview of the regional countries alone, and dismissed the US claim of seeking security in the region.” Khamenei stated that the Persian Gulf security relates to regional countries with common interests, “and not to the US.” He concluded that countries within the Gulf region should provide security to the region itself. Mehdi Hashemi, commander of the IRGC’s Zolfaqar Flotilla, asserted that USNS Invincible was at fault for sailing too close to IRGC vessels in the most recent incident in March. His claim mirrors Khamenei, stating American and British vessels presence in the Gulf region “endangers the security of this strategic region, which provides a huge portion of the world’s energy.”
Disagreements between the two governments differ as to whether these encounters have occurred within international or territorial waters. The Strait of Hormuz is a geopolitical chokepoint, through which at least 20 percent of the world’s oil flows. The encounters have all been dangerous; the causes of instigation and fault of the countries are disputed each time one occurs. Within the last weeks of March, President Trump vowed that if the US Navy were harassed by Iranian vessels in the Gulf, they would be “shot out of the water.” Army General Joseph Votel of the US Central Command called on the US leadership to take military action against Iran. Speaking to the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives of the US Congress, Votel asserted that Iran is the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East.
In response to statements made by the US military commander, Iran's Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan advised the US to stop bothering the regional countries and leave the Persian Gulf. Chief editor of the newspaper Iran Press Emad Abshenass stated that the US poses a threat to Iran by trying to invade Iranian waters or come as close as possible. He posed that “Iran in turn can also decide to conduct maneuvers in international waters, say, in the Gulf of Mexico.” This supposition may become a reality on the heels of an exercise involving 11 ships and US Navy guided-missile destroyer Mahan that included defensive navigation tactics, gunnery training, ship boarding and search-and-rescue that was recently conducted; the first of its kind since 2011. This exercise is a new trilateral format that will replace separate US-Iraq and US-Kuwait bilateral monthly exercises and be conducted quarterly. The exercises are driven by the three nations’ desire to cooperatively address threats that exist in the Persian Gulf. If and when Iran begins conducting its own war games in the Gulf of Mexico, US reaction to such a strategic move such is dubious. The sibling posturing will reach its end and may spark the beginning of war.