I don’t pretend to know whether the U.S. Navy’s version or the Iranian version of last Sunday’s incident in the Straits of Hormuz is more accurate or whether the two versions may not even be mutually exclusive, but I think there are two interesting points worth making — the first, regarding the reaction (or, more precisely the lack of one) by the familiar clutch of hawks to what was depicted as an major provocation by Iran; and the second, the possibility that the Navy and the Pentagon chose to dramatize the incident not so much to isolate and embarrass Iran as to enhance the chances for a new “incidents- at-sea” agreement that they have been pushing on the White House without success for many months now.
1) The neo-conservatives and other right-wing hawks (aside from the macho statements made by most of the Republican candidates during their debate Thursday night) have been remarkably quiet about the incident. Nothing really on the websites of either The Weekly Standard or the National Review (one would have expected at least something from Victor Davis Hanson, not to mention Michael Ledeen), nor on the AEI website. In fact, virtually the only peep we got from the usual suspects appeared on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, and that was by Walter Russell Mead who offered a historical defense for Washington’s naval dominance of a vital oil route and expressed relief that the incident did not escalate into actual hostilities. Contrast this silence with the virtually instantaneous howling by the hawks over a) the Hainan Incident in early 2001 and, of course, last spring’s capture by the Iranians of the British sailors and marines. They jumped all over both incidents, declaring that anything less than a strong show of force and an ultimatum to the evil-doers amounted to appeasement. I think the lack of a similar response shows that the neo-cons, in particular, are increasingly dispirited and resigned to the fact that the realists have wrested control of Iran policy, despite Robert Gates’ own rather hawkish statements this week.
2) Indeed, Gates’ rather hawkish statements notwithstanding, I wonder whether the conventional interpretation — that the administration and the Pentagon were trying to draw attention to the alleged threat posed by Iran as a way of framing Bush’s trip to the region and especially to the Gulf — is accurate, but not in the way the pundits have suggested to date. Specifically, I wonder whether this was the Pentagon’s equivalent of the intelligence community’s NIE on Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s been no secret for some time now that the Pentagon, and the head of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Adm. William Fallon, in particular, have been pressing the White House — without success — for negotiating a new “incidents at sea” agreement with Iran that would reduce the risk of a an accidental confrontation in the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf itself. As pointed out in an important Washington Post column by David Ignatius last September, ”(t)he big problem isn’t the regular Iranian navy but the naval forces of the Revolutionary Guard.” Ignatius went on to report that in early September, CENTCOM’s naval chief, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff — who, of course, was the first to brief the press on last Sunday’s incident — “appeared on a panel with the brother of the commander of the Revolutionary Guard” in Geneva the week before.
“This chance encounter …should be pursued,” wrote Ignatius, who noted that “America’s top military commanders in the Gulf (that would include Cosgriff) were lobbying for a new “incidents-at-sea” agreement. “The United States and Iran,” Ignatius went on, “are playing a game of ‘chicken’ in the Middle East. A collision would be ruinous for both. Each side needs to be careful to avoid miscalculation.” Interestingly, during an NPR interview Friday, Harlan Ullman, a Washington Times columnist and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (who also commanded a destroyer deployed to the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s), stressed that Sunday’s incident underlined the importance of a new incidents-at-sea accord with Iran, noting that such an agreement was very successful in preventing maritime confrontations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War.
Within that context, the timing of the Pentagon’s decision to publicize what really an apparently not-particularly-threatening incident involving Revolutionary Guard speedboats is particularly intriguing as I suspect there have been more serious incidents in the recent past. Frustrated until now in their efforts to get the White House to authorize negotiations over a new agreement, could it be that Fallon (who worked very hard to improve military ties — sometimes over the objections of Donald Rumsfeld — with China as the commander of the Ninth Fleet), Cosgriff, and other Pentagon and Navy officials decided to dramatize the danger just as Bush was embarking on his trip, anticipating that the president would get an earful from his Gulf state hosts about their fears that a naval confrontation could quickly escalate into a real war in which they would suffer significant collateral damage?
UPDATE: On a somewhat less serious note, there is one more point worth noting about the incident now that the Pentagon has released the longer videotape. All of the Revolutionary Guard depicted in the video are wearing life jackets!!! How does that square with the neo-con notion that they’re all Islamo-fascist fanatics ready to undertake “martyrdom” operations against the Great Satan at a moment’s notice? Judging from Norman Podhoretz, Bernard Lewis, Frank Gaffney, and their Christian Right fellow-travelers et. al., the last people you’d expect to be wearing life jackets while buzzing U.S. warships on the high seas would be the IRGC, right? Perhaps that’s why they’ve been quiet over this latest provocation.