USNS Rappahannock, right, with the USS James E. Williams
USNS Rappahannock, right, with the USS James E. Williams

Earlier this week, many in Washington held their breath after the U.S. Navy announced that the USNS Rappahannock had resorted to “lethal force” and fired on a small vessel in the Persian Gulf that had rapidly approached the U.S. ship.  Although we subsequently learned that it was Indian fishermen – not Iranian sailors – who had been shot, the incident illustrates just how dangerous the situation in the Persian Gulf really is.
What would have happened if the fishing boat had in fact been an Iranian naval vessel? Could the incident have escalated into armed conflict? It’s not hard to imagine a dangerous escalation when the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations has no way of communicating with his Iranian counterpart.
The U.S. has managed to convey messages to Iran in a number of ways – from working through the Swiss to sending letters through the Turkish prime minister.  But the reality is that sending letters by courier is utterly insufficient when people are shooting at each other.
It is shocking that, in a time of crisis, the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations cannot pick up the phone and prevent the situation from spiraling out of control by talking to Iran’s naval commanders.  Given the tensions between the U.S. and Iran and the close proximity of U.S. and Iranian vessels operating in the Persian Gulf every day, it is downright dangerous that we do not have such a simple capability.

When U.S. military officials floated the idea of setting up a naval hotline late last year, the response from Iran was mixed. Some in the Iranian leadership welcomed the idea, while the IRGC was dismissive, perhaps because the U.S. sought to have a hotline with the traditional Iranian navy instead of with the IRGC’s naval forces.
The U.S. response was to quietly drop the idea.  The U.S. normally spares no expense to protect U.S. troops and sailors around the world. But in this case, apparently no one was willing to expend any political capital to advance the proposal further, despite its obvious benefits.
As the incident with the Indian fishing boat makes clear, a naval hotline is still very much needed to contain any future incidents.  It would be even better if the U.S. simultaneously reached an Incidents at Sea agreement to prevent shots from ever being fired in the first place by making sure everyone understands the “rules of the road” in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.
As Admiral Mike Mullen said shortly before he retired as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union.” But until we set up similar communications channels with Iran, one of Adm. Mullen’s last warnings remains very true:  “If something happens [with Iran], it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations, which would be extremely dangerous.”

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