War Stories

What Happened in the Strait of Hormuz?

How to prevent a naval war with Iran.

The USS Port Royal

Just how serious was the half-hour standoff Sunday morning between three American warships and five Iranian speed boats in the Strait of Hormuz? Did we come close to war? Was there any provocation? Was the Pentagon’s version of events, as the Iranians claim, a fake?

In response to the Iranians’ charge, the Defense Department released excerpts from a videotape of the incident. In response to that, the Iranians issued their own video. Both clips are strange. They are also very different from each other. There’s a good reason, however, for the strangeness and the contradictions.

The Pentagon’s footage shows five speed boats making provocative maneuvers a couple of hundred yards from an American warship. Speaking in English over the standard radio frequency, a U.S. Navy officer identifies his ship. Suddenly, an Iranian voice, in heavily accented English, is heard saying, “I am coming to you. You will explode in [unintelligible] minutes.” The voice sounds superimposed; it is much louder than the other voices; there’s also no background noise of engines or waves, as there would be if the speaker were on one of the speed boats.

Meanwhile, the Iranians’ footage shows an American vessel in the distance. An Iranian, speaking through a radio, says, “Coalition warship 73. This is Iranian patrol boat.” We hear the American say, “I read you loud and clear.” A bit later, the American says, “We are in international waters.” In short, nothing momentous is going on at all. It is, as the Iranian foreign ministry shrugged afterward, “ordinary.”

The likely explanation for the differences is this: The two videos are of two different incidents. During his Jan. 7 news conference, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, noted that American and Iranian ships have many interactions that are usually civil and peaceful, then he said:

In fact, this group [of U.S. warships] had passed an Iranian navy ship earlier in its transit and exchanged quite correct radio communications with that Iranian ship.

This earlier contact—with its “quite correct” communications—is probably the one depicted in the Iranian video. (I thank William M. Arkin, who writes the Washington Post’s Early Warning blog, for this insight.)

As for the threatening Iranian voice in the Pentagon’s videotape, it sounds so different, so removed, because it was removed. Some officials now say that the warning was probably a radio communication from someone on shore—presumably a Revolutionary Guard commander, but who knows. That doesn’t make the warning any less ominous, at least to the U.S. captains on the scene at the time; it only explains why it might sound disconnected. It’s worth noting here that, as Pentagon officials acknowledge, the audio and video tracks were made separately and were pieced together later. Again, there’s nothing necessarily nefarious about this; it only explains why the audio seems a bit out of synch from the video.

Was this a dicey confrontation? Without question. Vice Adm. Cosgriff said at his news conference that the Iranians have engaged in these kinds of aggressive maneuvers only twice before—out of the dozens of times (two or three times a week) that American ships have crossed into the strait in the sight of Iranian ships.

Given the sharp memories of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 sailors, it’s only natural that the officers onboard the U.S. destroyer, cruiser, and frigate moving through the strait on Sunday morning, well within international waters, should take the speedboats’ actions very seriously.

I am told that, at one point, the Iranian boats came within the security zone of at least one of the American warships—that is, close enough that, under the U.S. Navy’s rules of engagement, the ship’s captain could have been well within reason to fire a warning shot. The Pentagon’s videotape reveals that at least one of the ships sounded the warning horn—but nobody took a shot.

Both Adm. William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Central Command, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have instructed captains in the Persian Gulf to be extremely cautious in the event of Iranian provocations. Nonetheless, by necessity, a ship’s captain has full authority to take action if he judges that his vessel faces a clear and imminent danger. According to at least one report, one of the captains was moments away from firing when the Iranian boats turned away.

It’s hard to say what the Iranians were trying to accomplish or, for that matter, whether their actions were approved by the Tehran regime. (The boats are said to be under the control of the Revolutionary Guard, which is more militant than the regular navy and which has been known to act on its own authority, even in defiance of the foreign ministry.) Were they sending a signal to President George W. Bush, on the eve of his trip to the Middle East, that the U.S. fleet shouldn’t assume it can act with impunity in the Gulf? Were they testing the fleet’s rules of engagement? Were they playing to the crowd at home, trying to provoke the United States in order to stoke the fear of a larger U.S. attack on Iran, a fear that sustains their own political power?

In one crucial sense, the explanation doesn’t matter. Many wars over the centuries have been triggered by misperceptions and by escalations from small-scale clashes. As historian Walter Russell Mead notes in an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, “From the 18th century to the present day, threats to American ships and maritime commerce have been the way most U.S. wars start.”

And yet, as Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, told the Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman on Monday, the U.S. commanders have no systematic way to halt a conflict if it begins to spiral. “I do not have a direct link with my counterpart in the Iranian Navy,” he said. “I do not have a way to communicate directly with the Iranian Navy or [Revolutionary] Guard.”

Through the darkest days of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow maintained a hot line. During most of those times, there were parallel forums for communication between the two sides’ senior officers. Iran doesn’t pose anything remotely resembling the threat that the United States and the Soviet Union posed to each other in those years. Here is yet another reason to establish diplomatic relations with Iran. You don’t have to be friends to talk.