U.S. and Iranian war ships have well-established ways of communication designed to avoid misreading their maneuvers and actions, but the two militaries still lack a mechanism commanders on each side could use to stave off a costly miscalculation.
As tensions between Washington and Tehran rise over the latter's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, the chances that one side might misinterpret something done by the other is an issue that keeps Pentagon officials awake at night. The U.S. military has not had an ongoing dialogue with Tehran's military since the late 1970s--but the stakes of that silence grow more dire each day as Iran defies American officials' insistence it abandon its nuclear arms program.
U.S. Fleet Forces Command chief Adm. John Harvey told U.S. News & World Report Tuesday that the nations' navies use "standard ship-to-ship communications ... protocols that work well." The U.S. Navy puts its war ship commanding officers set to operate in Tehran's backyard through extensive training on how to interact with Iranian ships, he said.
But when asked if a similar kind of communication framework is in place at a higher level of command to allow the rivals from making a miscalculation that could trigger a U.S.-Iranian conflict, Harvey replied: "Not much of a dialogue exists."
Senior U.S. military commanders have worried about such a miscalculation for some time. During his last days on the job, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen raised such worries. "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," Mullen said. "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, that there will be miscalculation."
And that scenario, Mullen warned, "would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world."
This lack of communication means "Washington must play the long game, with a focus on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran and the dangers of miscommunication," Middle East expert Trita Parsi wrote in a coming book on the Obama administration's Iran policies.