August 4, 2016

Time is Ripe For An Incidents at Sea Agreement

Washington, D.C.-The Strait of Hormuz, located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is one of the most sensitive regions in the world due to its geopolitical relevance. A variety of factors including the narrowness of the Strait of Hurmuz, the large amount of seaborne oil passing through the strait, and the constant presence of U.S. and Iranian forces have rendered the region uniquely prone to fatal encounters. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen warned as far back as 2011 “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculation.” We weren’t talking to Iran when Mullen issued his warning, but we are now. Yet, the absence of formal diplomatic channels between the two nations remains the most dangerous element in the equation to this day. Surprisingly, it may also be the simplest to resolve if the countries capitalize on recent diplomacy to pursue an Incidents at Sea Agreement.
Perhaps the most significant additional benefit of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States is the reestablished channel of communication between the two nations. The benefit of this channel was clear when Kerry and Zarif intervened to ensure the quick release of U.S. Navy sailors that were captured after crossing into Iranian waters in January.
Kerry and Zarif were able to return the sailors to a U.S. Navy base within 15 hours of being detained. This stands in contrast to a similar incident involving British sailors from 2007, in which the sailors were brought to the mainland and detained for 13 tense days, thus demonstrating the benefits of stronger ties. Commenting on the benefits of the channel, Kerry has noted that “[only] two years ago we wouldn’t have known who to call, enough time would have gone by, we would have called the Swiss, and [then] there would have been sufficient enmity for another situation”.
That January incident highlighted the danger of accidental naval war in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. and Iran, as it easily could have resulted in fire between the two country’s naval forces or led to broader hostility if cooler heads had not prevailed. Rather than rely exclusively on a channel that could end in January, the U.S. and Iran would be wise to take steps to ensure that a similar incident spirals out of control.
Iran and the U.S. have a long history of small-scale naval engagements that continue to this day. A recent example is the mishap in January involving Iranian live-fire naval exercises in the Strait of Hurmuz. The USS Truman, an aircraft carrier, was transiting the strait into the Persian Gulf to assist in the air campaign against ISIS when unguided missiles launched by the IRGC Navy (IRGCN) missed the carrier by a mere 1,500 yards.
An “Incidents at Sea agreement” is the logical solution to reduce these dangers. The agreement would establish direct lines of communication between the two navies, provide updates on scheduled military exercises, and allow both parties to quickly alert each other of their presence in unexpected circumstances.
The concept of an Incidents at Sea agreement is neither unprecedented nor antiquated. In 1972 the U.S. and USSR signed such an agreement to avoid unnecessary collisions and miscalculations. The agreement was a success for both sides and reduced the frequency of naval encounters between the two nations. If two nations as diametrically opposed as the U.S. and USSR were able to identify and agree to a win-win situation, the same logic ought to apply to U.S. relations with Iran.
Similar accords have been established today in other parts of the world as well. In 2014 China became party to an Incidents at Sea agreement with the United States and the ASEAN countries, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). The agreement was arrived at to reduce the probability of dangerous naval encounters near the strategically sensitive and contested islands of the South China Sea.
There has been widespread support for such an agreement between Iran and the U.S. In 2010, an Incidents at Sea agreement was proposed and supported by various military leaders. Former Admiral Joe Sestak has also advocated for an agreement, stating that he suggested an agreement with Iran in the early ‘90s, as well as later in life as an Admiral in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, Iranian academic Kaveh Afrasiabi has recently noted that in 2008 he and current U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter – who was at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government at the time – wrote policy proposals in tandem to the Pentagon and Tehran in favor of an Incidents at Sea agreement between the two countries.
While an Incidents at Sea agreement will not eliminate the possibility for tragic miscalculations, it is evident that increased communication and transparency can only help improve the region’s security situation and thus reduce the possibility that the U.S. backslides into yet another costly war.

Back to top