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A Persian Gulf Hotline: What We Need to Stop a War with Iran

11 former U.S. intelligence officials urge a U.S.-Iranian system for communications in case of crisis.


FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

SUBJECT: Avoiding Spiraling Violence in the Persian Gulf

We write respectfully to call your attention to the clear and present danger of escalation in the Persian Gulf and to suggest ways to lessen that likelihood. There needs to be a reliable way for our Navy to communicate at a sufficiently high level with Iranian naval counterparts. Otherwise, incidents occasioned by accident or provocation can readily escalate in ways neither side intends.

This is not a new problem; others (notably former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen) have called attention to it in the past. We do so again because of the sharply increased tensions flowing from terrorist attacks like the one on July 18 in Bulgaria in which five Israeli tourists were killed.

It is not yet known who the suicide bomber was. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the attack — a claim that has not been substantiated — and threatened retaliation. Inside Iran, terrorist attacks have claimed the lives of five Iranian scientists over the past five years, with the Iranians blaming Israel.

The recent buildup of warships in the Persian Gulf has added not only to crowding, but also to a hair-trigger, volatile environment.  On July 16, the U.S. Navy announced that a Navy refueling ship out of Bahrain, the Rappahannock, had used “lethal force” against a 50-foot pleasure craft, killing one Indian fisherman and seriously injuring three others.

The Navy said the fishermen had been given ample warning, but the three survivors insisted they had received no warning before being fired upon. And if that fishing boat had been an Iranian naval vessel?

As that recent shoot-up suggests, the waters of the Gulf offer the most likely locale for an incident that could spiral out of control. The navigable part of the Strait of Hormuz is narrow; it is an area where ships collide. In 2007, for example, the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Newport News collided with a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait while the submarine was transiting submerged.

Two years later, the USS Hartford nuclear submarine and the amphibious USS New Orleans collided in the waters between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula while on routine security patrols in that crowded shipping lane. In January 2008, five Iranian boats swarmed three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz.

The skies over that strategic area have also seen inadvertent tragedy. On July 3, 1988, the Aegis guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian passenger jetliner, Iran Air Flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 passengers. Iran Air Flight 655 was on a scheduled daily flight using established air lanes from Bandar Abbas, Iran, to Dubai, when the Vincennes mistakenly identified it as a fighter aircraft.

The Vincennes had sent a radio warning on the international air distress frequency, but gave incorrect altitude and position information on the plane. Thus, even if the Flight 655 crew were tuned in, they may have thought the warning was directed at some other flight. A U.S. Navy frigate, the USS Sides, reported that Iranian plane was climbing — not diving to attack — at the time of the missile strike.

Preventive Measures

At a press conference on July 2, 2008, the JCS Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that military-to-military dialogue could “add to a better understanding” between the U.S. and Iran. As far as we are aware, no such dialogue has been established.

Just before he retired, Admiral Mullen bemoaned the inevitable, and unnecessary, risk stemming from the absence of military-to-military ties: “We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979. 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 — and there will be miscalculation, which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

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