What Happened in the Strait of Hormuz?
Just how serious was the half-hour standoff Sunday morning between three American warships and five Iranian speed boats in the Strait of Hormuz? Did we come close to war? Was there any provocation? Was the Pentagon's version of events, as the Iranians claim, a fake?A different version of events has been has been presented by Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, Commander of the 5th Fleet.
In response to the Iranians' charge, the Defense Department released excerpts from a videotape of the incident. In response to that, the Iranians issued their own video. Both clips are strange. They are also very different from each other. There's a good reason, however, for the strangeness and the contradictions.
The Pentagon's footage shows five speed boats making provocative maneuvers a couple of hundred yards from an American warship. Speaking in English over the standard radio frequency, a U.S. Navy officer identifies his ship. Suddenly, an Iranian voice, in heavily accented English, is heard saying, "I am coming to you. You will explode in [unintelligible] minutes." The voice sounds superimposed; it is much louder than the other voices; there's also no background noise of engines or waves, as there would be if the speaker were on one of the speed boats.
The U.S. warships were not concerned about the possibility that the Iranian boats were armed with heavier weapons capable of doing serious damage. Asked by a reporter whether any of the vessels had anti-ship missiles or torpedoes, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, Commander of the 5th Fleet, answered that none of them had either of those two weapons.Jazz and I along with Rick Moran discussed this on Mid Stream Radio this morning. Rick speculated that the initial somewhat melodramatic report may have come from some inside the Pentagon who favor an attack on Iran which Sec of Defense Robert Gates does not. This is a very dangerous situation, as Fred Kaplan says:
"I didn't get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats," said Cosgriff.
Vice Adm. Cosgriff also failed to claim any run toward the U.S. ships following the initial warning. Cosgriff suggested that the Iranian boat's manoeuvres were "unduly provocative" only because of the "aggregate of their manoeuvres, the radio call and the dropping of objects in the water".
He described the objects dropped by the Iranian boat as being "white, box-like objects that floated". That description indicates that the objects were clearly not mines, which would have been dark and would have sunk immediately. Cosgriff indicated that the ships merely "passed by them safely" without bothering to investigate whether they were explosives of some kind.
The apparent absence of concern on the part of the U.S. ships' commanding officers about the floating objects suggests that they recognised that the Iranians were engaging in a symbolic gesture having to do with laying mines.
Cosgriff's answers to reporters' questions indicated that the story promoted earlier by Pentagon officials that one of the U.S . ships came very close to firing at the Iranian boats seriously distorted what actually happened. When Cosgriff was asked whether the crew ever gave warning to the Iranian boats that they "could come under fire", he said the commanding officers "did not believe they needed to fire warning shots".
As for the report circulated by at least one Pentagon official to the media that one of the commanders was "close to firing", Cosgriff explained that "close to" meant that the commander was "working through a series of procedures". He added, "[I]n his mind, he might have been closing in on that point."
Despite Cosgriff's account, which contradicted earlier Pentagon portrayals of the incident as a confrontation, not a single news outlet modified its earlier characterisation of the incident. After the Cosgriff briefing, Associated Press carried a story that said, " U.S. forces were taking steps toward firing on the Iranians to defend themselves, said the U.S. naval commander in the region. But the boats -- believed to be from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's navy -- turned and moved away, officials said."
That was quite different from what Cosgriff actually said.
In its story covering the Cosgriff briefing, Reuters cited "other Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity" as saying that "a U.S. captain was in the process of ordering sailors to open fire when the Iranian boats moved away" -- a story that Cosgriff had specifically denied.
Many wars over the centuries have been triggered by misperceptions and by escalations from small-scale clashes. As historian Walter Russell Mead notes in an op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal, "From the 18th century to the present day, threats to American ships and maritime commerce have been the way most U.S. wars start."
And yet, as Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, told the Boston Globe's Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman on Monday, the U.S. commanders have no systematic way to halt a conflict if it begins to spiral. "I do not have a direct link with my counterpart in the Iranian Navy," he said. "I do not have a way to communicate directly with the Iranian Navy or [Revolutionary] Guard."
Through the darkest days of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow maintained a hot line. During most of those times, there were parallel forums for communication between the two sides' senior officers. Iran doesn't pose anything remotely resembling the threat that the United States and the Soviet Union posed to each other in those years. Here is yet another reason to establish diplomatic relations with Iran. You don't have to be friends to talk.