Lack of communication with Iran could ignite tinderbox

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Earlier this month, the Obama administration warned Iran that it would cross a “red line” if it closed the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow opening at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of the world’s daily oil trade flows.

Iran recently threatened to close the waterway if the West imposed new economic sanctions, which is about to happen. Many U.S. experts doubt the Tehran regime really intends to block the strait because that would choke off Iran’s own oil exports and cut its main source of revenue.

The bigger fear is that rising tensions will spark a gulf incident that could escalate into something much bigger. One major reason for this fear: Iran and the United States have no means of communication to defuse a confrontation.

The absence of any direct military hotline could produce the gulf war neither side wants.

This risk has long concerned U.S. military officials. On Jan. 6, 2008, five Iranian speedboats aggressively confronted three U.S. Navy warships; one of the U.S. ships was about to shoot when the Iranian vessels turned away. At the time, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said: “This is a very volatile area. The risk of an incident, and of an incident escalating, is real.”

After that 2008 event, retired Adm. James Lyons, who had served as commander of the Pacific Fleet, proposed a remedy in an op-ed article in the Washington Times: Modify the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement — designed to prevent misunderstandings between the U.S. and Soviet navies — for naval operations in the Persian Gulf.

According to Iran expert Barbara Slavin, two consecutive heads of U.S. Central Command — Gen. John Abizaid and Adm. William “Fox” Fallon — were apparently denied permission by the George W. Bush administration to pursue such an agreement.

Yet U.S. military commanders did not give up on the concept. In September, the Wall Street Journal reported that a series of “near-miss” encounters between Iranian and U.S. forces had pushed U.S. officials to (again) weigh establishing a military hotline with the Islamic republic.

‘Extremely dangerous’

Adm. Mike Mullen reflected that concern, when, just before stepping down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the fall, he told a Washington think tank: “We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979. Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that … there will be a miscalculation which would be extremely dangerous.”

Astonishingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — while visiting New York in September — endorsed setting up joint warning systems to avoid “unwanted clashes” in the gulf. But, in a sign of Iran’s convoluted domestic politics, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard naval commander, Adm. Ali Fadavi, vetoed the idea.

That rejection underlines one key obstacle to a hotline: Iran’s internal conflicts. Iran has two navies: the traditional state navy, which is more professional, and the more reckless Republican Guard navy, which has responsibility for operations in the gulf.

Given the damage Iran would suffer in a gulf war, the Tehran regime may recognize the need to avoid an accidental conflict. If an Incidents at Sea Agreement or some form of hotline were pursued in private, it might produce results.

Which brings us to the second major obstacle: U.S. internal political conflicts. In an election year, when the White House and Republican candidates are trying to out-hawk one another on Iran, the idea of a hotline might become a political hot potato.

At a time when U.S.-Iranian tensions are soaring, and a gulf war could sink the global economy, isn’t it time to consider the concerns of U.S. military officers about a hotline? They know the risks that grow from lack of communication. If we could talk to the Soviets in the 1970s, shouldn’t we try to do the same with Iran?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: trubin@phillynews.com.