Hasan Jamali  /  AP
U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Downing prepares for takeoff Wednesday from the deck of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
updated 6/7/2007 3:54:15 PM ET 2007-06-07T19:54:15

Even as Iran and the U.S. face off bitterly, Navy commanders in the Persian Gulf are working quietly to keep communications open with Iran's military, hoping the contact will avert an accidental stumble into armed confrontation.

Most of the talk takes place over the crackle of radios, using the standard international bridge-to-bridge communications network, Rear Adm. Terry Blake, commander of the strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, said aboard ship this week.

Other contacts are between Iranian pilots and air communications networks.

Conversations often begin with an Iranian voice, in accented English, announcing that Iran has detected foreign planes or ships and wants to know their purpose, said the carrier's skipper, Capt. Michael Manazir.

"Hey, vessel at such and such a latitude and longitude, this is the Iranian navy. Who are you? What's your course and speed?" Manazir said, paraphrasing a typical call from Iran.

"We say: 'Iranian navy, this is coalition warship 68. Our course is three-zero-zero at 15 knots, operating in international waters.'"

Most of the conversations are brief and businesslike, with little information shared.

Iranians are 'curious'
But not every encounter is pleasant. The Iranians frequently send frigates and patrol craft or reconnaissance planes, including U.S.-made P-3 Orions, to watch the U.S. ships.

The Navy often responds by scrambling an F/A-18 fighters to intercept and shadow Iranian planes.

"They're curious, if you will," Blake said. "They want to understand who's operating in the area."

The U.S. now has two carriers — the Nimitz and the USS John C. Stennis — operating in the Gulf, often just off Iran's coast.

The carriers and the ships in their strike groups were mostly unaffected by this week's Cyclone Gonu, which hit Oman in the southern Arabian peninsula and brought rain to the far southern coast of Iran, but did not greatly affect Gulf waters.

In Washington, U.S. officials have said the increased naval presence in the Gulf serves as a warning to Iran not to test U.S. resolve at a time when the American military is busy in Iraq.

But Blake and Manazir said the second carrier was mostly part of the Navy's contribution to the buildup of forces in Iraq since January and the continued air bombing in Afghanistan, rather than a warning to Iran.

"Our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are what's drawing our presence here, not Iran," Manazir said.

He said he considers it understandable that Iran is wary of U.S. warships off its coast, just as Americans would be wary if the Iranian navy were off Massachusetts or California.

"That's their coastline. There's a respect for their air and water space. But to avoid a misunderstanding, we need dialogue," said Manazir, 48, of Mission Viejo, Calif.

Taking a step back
When the Nimitz and eight other U.S. warships put on a show of force last month — sailing through the Strait of Hormuz and conducting exercises off Iran's coast — U.S. commanders were in direct radio touch with Iranian navy and air force officers, Blake said.

This week, the Nimitz was operating in a 75-mile by 25-mile patch of sea called Carrier Operating Area 4. The easternmost edge is about 40 miles from the Iranian city of Bushehr, where Russia is building a nuclear power plant.

Carrier Operating Area 4 consists of deep water with no oil platforms and less merchant ship traffic than other areas. It's also far enough from Iran so the Nimitz's 70 planes aren't likely to stray into Iranian airspace.

"The reason we do that is to avoid conflict with Iran that we don't want to have," Manazir said.

So far, the U.S.-Iranian dispute over Tehran's nuclear program and the March capture and release of 15 British sailors and marines in disputed northern Gulf waters have not ended the military-to-military dialogue.

"It's a complete disconnect from what you read in the papers. We don't see a manifestation at the tactical level of the verbiage at the political level," said Manazir, surveying the giant ship's bustling flight deck from the bridge.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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