Cooler Heads Prevail, for Now

The hottest video on the Internet today has nothing to do with Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton’s tears – it is footage from the deck of a U.S. Navy ship of an incident in the Strait of Hormuz.

I transited the Strait exactly once (twice if you count both inbound and outbound), and my memory of the whole affair is pretty murky as it occurred over 16 years ago. Besides, I didn’t exactly get a good visual. I was an engineer aboard the USS TICONDEROGA (CG 47), and spent most of my time staring at gauges in the engineering control room down in the bowels of the ship. I do recall, however, that the whole process took a long time, and that we were on a high state of alert.

My initial reaction on hearing that Iranian small boats had approached three navy ships in a threatening manner was to gather more details. I knew that such incidents have occurred in the past, and I was curious if this was being blown out of proportion. I’ve asked around to some friends and former colleagues who have more recent experience transiting the Strait, and the general take-away was surprise that the ship captains didn’t fire. It is simply imprudent to allow any ship or small boat to come that close, and especially so if you assume hostile intent.

But it is also imprudent to take actions that might escalate into full-blown war, and that is what might have occurred if the U.S. navy had fired on the Iranian small boats.

After all, it is not unreasonable to speculate that some Iranians would like to bait the United States into taking the first shot, an idea first floated by Cato Research Fellow Stanley Kober over two years ago. And there is a pattern in Iranian actions over the past five or six years that reveal the deep divisions within Iran society, even at the highest levels of government. Hints of conciliation (as we heard last week from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), or periods of relative calm, are often broken by hostile or threatening acts, and recriminations from the opponents of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

In this context, the many members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who are committed America-haters, and the few who would willingly sacrifice their own life to do harm to the Great Satan, might have been aiming for something more. Driving a small boat headlong into automatic weapons fire is no less suicidal than detonating an explosive vest, but the atmospherics would have looked dramatically different. Even if the U.S. naval personnel were acting in self-defense, and operating strictly in accordance with procedures, it would have been conveyed as an act of American aggression. After all, that is what Iranians have been told happened during the tragic USS VINCENNES incident from 1988 – in which a U.S. Navy cruiser mistook an Iranian passenger jet for a military aircraft, and 290 passengers and crew died. (And, consistent with that pattern, Iranian media is today reporting that the video of the latest incident in the Strait is “fabricated.”)

I have long argued, and still believe, that a war with Iran would not serve U.S. interests. Indeed, I believe it would be catastrophic. I also know that relatively minor incidents during periods of high tension have led to wider wars, and those conditions are in place today in the region. There is plenty of blame to go around.

For now, as the details continue to trickle in, I’m grateful that the Navy COs kept their cool, and held their fire.