July 14, 2017

House Passes Measure Aimed at Preventing Confrontation with Iran

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a victory for efforts to establish new diplomatic channels between the U.S. and Iran and prevent an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf, the House passed an amendment on Thursday to require the Pentagon to consider options for negotiating an Incidents at Sea Agreement with Iran and other countries operating in the Persian Gulf.

The measure was introduced by Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and was voted unanimously to be included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that authorizes Department of Defense programs and spending. The measure was strongly supported by the National Iranian American Council, which advocated for its passage. It will now go to the Senate and must be passed by both chambers before being signed into law.

The success of the measure in overcoming partisan obstacles is particularly meaningful given the current political landscape in Washington. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have increased in past months and much of Washington has appeared more oriented towards confrontation than dialogue between the two countries. As a candidate, Donald Trump even advocated for sinking Iranian ships if an incident occurred in the Persian Gulf. An Incidents at Sea agreement would help ensure that no such action would be taken and an all out war would be avoided.

In January 2016, U.S. Navy command boats inadvertently entered Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf and were seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy. Through personal diplomacy between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif , the sides were able to quickly de-escalate the situation. The sailors were released within hours and a crisis was avoided. The episode, however, illustrated the need for a systematic framework to be able to resolve any possible confrontations that could arise between the two countries.

However, the departure of Secretary Kerry, and the lack of diplomatic channels  between President Trump’s administration and Iranian officials, means that an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf is a major risk. Numerous incidents have occurred in recent months between American and Iranian vessels traversing the Persian Gulf, which has added urgency to concerns that a confrontation could quickly spiral out of control and even lead to a serious military confrontation between the countries.

The vote to include the Incidents at Sea agreement signifies one area where U.S. policy can shift back towards diplomatic engagement, and where the U.S. and Iran – not to mention the other parties that operate in the Persian Gulf – can pursue dialogue. The measure requires the Defense Department to produce a report on the feasibility and the advisability of negotiating an Incidents at Sea Agreement with Iran.

A similar bill, also supported by NIAC, did pass the full Congress in 2011. The resulting Pentagon report, however, was fully classified and little follow up action was possible. Under the text of the new legislation, an unclassified version of the report would also be required – which could set the stage for further efforts by Congress and outside organizations like NIAC to press for an agreement.

An incidents at sea agreement between the U.S. and Iran would not be the first time two countries with tense relations have been able to effectively maintain civil interactions for the sake of peace. In 1972 the U.S. and USSR signed such an agreement to avoid unnecessary collisions and miscalculations, which resulted in success for both sides and a reduction in the frequency of naval encounters between the two nations.

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