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Conflicting signals from Tehran?

/ Source: msnbc.com

Challenging the U.S. Navy on the high seas is not a good course of action anytime, but the timing of the recent confrontation is particularly puzzling.

After the release of the National Intelligence Estimate in November that indicated that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons development program in 2003, there seemed to be a subtle thaw in U.S-Iranian relations. 

The Iranians asked for new talks on Iraqi security with our ambassador in Baghdad.  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hinted that normalization of relations with “The Great Satan” was not impossible in the future.  American military leaders in Iraq claimed that Iran had decreased its support to Shiite militias in the country.  Both Tehran and Washington appeared to have moved back from the brink of a confrontation over Iran’s nuclear research and development program.

Against that backdrop, we almost had a deadly armed maritime confrontation between five IRGC fast runabouts,  probably Boghammers or Boston Whalers, and three U.S. Navy warships near the Straits of Hormuz, through which 25 percent of the world’s oil flows.  Free flow of oil from the Gulf is a vital U.S. national interest and this is not an area for missteps.  It has been our stated policy for decades to guarantee that flow, using military force if necessary.

Iranian challenges to the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf are not new.  In 1988, the last year of the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War, there was a series of escalating events between the Iranians and Americans.  When the U.S. agreed to escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf, IRGC sailors laid mines in the shipping lanes, one of which damaged a U.S. Navy frigate.

In retaliation, the Navy destroyed an Iranian oil platform used for surveillance of U.S. operations.  That caused the Iranian navy to attempt a surface engagement with the U.S. flotilla.  In the battle that followed, two Iranian surface combatants and half a dozen speedboats were sunk and many other units and facilities damaged.  The action was a stinging defeat for the Iranians, and caused the U.S. sailors to be wary of Iranian speedboats.  The IRGC’s seizure of a Royal Navy patrol boat last year only heightens that wariness.

After the USS Cole was attacked by a small boat suicide bombing while conducting a port call at Aden, Yemen in 2000, the U.S. Navy adopted strict policies on how close unauthorized vessels may approach.  The deaths of 17 sailors have not been forgotten by their comrades.

I suspect that this action may have been isolated, and not a sanctioned incident.  The IRGC is composed of young Islamic radicals who may have thought harassing a Great Satan navy vessel would have no consequences.  The Iranian foreign ministry sought to play this down as routine and non-threatening.  

What Tehran does not need is a diplomatic flap that will underscore the potential threat posed by Iran at a time when President Bush is in the region attempting to bolster Arab solidarity to confront the ascendancy of Iran as a regional power.