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Averting a Disaster in the Persian Gulf

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

08 Jun 2011 13:23Comments

Two U.S. military experts call for establishing dialogue between U.S. and Iranian military commanders.

iran-navy-exercises.jpg[ dispatch ] A former commander of the U.S. Central Command and a colonel who currently serves as special adviser to the commander of Centcom gave sober and worrying assessments of U.S.-Iran relations to a conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.

Both warned that military miscalculations between naval or other military forces in the Persian Gulf could spark a conflict between the United States and Iran, and both called for confidence-building measures between Iran and the United States to avoid "war by miscalculation."

Admiral William Fallon, who led Centcom from March 2007 to March 2008, told the conference, organized by the American Iranian Council, that in his opinion there was "little chance" that the United States would deliberately attack Iran. During the year that he led Centcom, Fallon was widely reported to have opposed officials in the George W. Bush administration who advocated the use of the military option against Iran, and in his remarks Fallon confirmed that he had been upset by the "incessant focus on conflict, conflict, conflict -- that was my issue." Asked whether President Obama would ever consider attacking Iran, Fallon said, "I have no idea. [But] we ought to be working pretty hard to focus on other things that would have us in a different place."

Even though Fallon believes that the United States isn't likely headed toward a military showdown with Iran, he warned that unplanned or unpredictable clashes between the U.S. Navy and the Iranian Navy or naval elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could quickly escalate, and he called for immediate steps to initiate a dialogue between U.S. and Iranian military commanders on a regular basis. The American commander in the Persian Gulf "can't just drop in Bandar Abbas," the Iranian naval base, for talks without careful preparation and approval from higher-ups, he said, adding that even so in the past "there's been more dialogue between the U.S. Navy and the Iranian Navy than other parts of the two governments."

Fallon said that it's time for the United States to abandon its excessively narrow focus on the Iranian nuclear program and to initiate a broader dialogue on issues of mutual concern. "The United States has to be proactive," he said. "You've got to get people from both sides to sit down and talk about what matters. If you're going to make progress on this, it's going to happen outside the public limelight, probably talking to someone you've never heard of."

Col. David Crist, senior adviser to the commander of U.S. Centcom -- speaking for himself and not for the Department of Defense -- said that just as World War I erupted in August, 1914, after miscalculations and misunderstandings among Europe's powers, a similar thing could set off a wider U.S.-Iran conflict in the Persian Gulf and beyond. In 1972, he said, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Incidents at Sea Agreement designed to establish smooth-functioning communications between the two superpower naval forces so that an accidental encounter at sea could be contained before it escalated, and he called for a similar agreement between Iran and the United States. At present, he said, U.S. forces in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf suffer from "tactical to strategic ignorance" about Iranian command-and-control policies. "It's unclear," he said, "how decisions are made from the top all the way down to the level of commanders in the Persian Gulf." Not only that, he said, but "the United States has no clear idea of Iran's security concerns."

As examples of current tensions, Crist said that Iran has defined its maritime boundary more broadly than the range accepted by the United States, and in response the United States has from time to time intentionally violated that boundary to assert what it considers its rights in international waters. At the same time, Iran has occasionally engaged in what Crist called "Tom Cruise-esque fly-by's" over U.S. naval forces, and that U.S. commanders are uncertain whether such incidents are the result of high-level decisions by Tehran or just the actions of a "hot-shot pilot." He expressed concern that a "bumping incident" could "quickly spiral out of control."

Crist suggested that various Centcom leaders, including General John Abizaid, who headed Centcom from 2003 to 2007, have sought to establish some sort of relations between U.S. and Iranian military commanders, but have been rebuffed by politicians. "Abizaid had ideas," said Crist, without specifying what they were, "but ran into opposition from the Bush administration." General James Mattis, the current Centcom commander, is also exploring similar ideas. So far, however, the idea of U.S.-Iranian military relations is hostage to the political concerns of leaders on both sides.

Fallon also said that it's impossible to know whether Iran is developing its nuclear capacity for military purposes or to construct a civilian power industry. It's Iran's goal, he said, to create a calculated ambiguity about its intentions. "My assessment is that ambiguity in terms of any declaration about a nuclear weapon is probably in their better interests," he said. "Are they building a bomb? Are they vastly expanding their electricity? We just don't know." Asked about those in the United States and Israel who advocate an attack on Iran, Fallon added: "Most of 'em don't know what they're talking about." But whatever the truth, he said, "The United States has learned tough lessons in recent years about the widespread application of [military force] in the region."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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