Thursday, June 07, 2007

Semaphores and gunboat diplomacy 

In Iranian-American affairs, such as they are, the last thing we need right now is an accident. If we ever decide to fight back, we should make sure it is on purpose. Fortunately, the United States Navy, which has two centuries of diplomatic experience, understands that it needs to avoid fender-benders in the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf:

Even as Iran and the United States face off bitterly, U.S. Navy commanders in the Persian Gulf are working quietly to keep communications open with Iran's military, hoping such contacts will help avert an accidental stumble into armed confrontation.

Most of the contacts take place over the crackle of radios, using the standard international bridge-to-bridge communications network, said Rear Adm. Terry Blake, commander of the strike group led by the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, speaking aboard ship this week. Others are between Iranian pilots and air communications networks.

Conversations often begin with an Iranian voice, in accented English, announcing that Iran has detected foreign planes or ships and wants to know their purpose, said the carrier's skipper, Capt. Michael Manazir.

"Hey, vessel at such and such a latitude and longitude, this is the Iranian navy. Who are you? What's your course and speed?" Manazir said, paraphrasing a typical call from Iran.

"We say 'Iranian navy, this is coalition warship 68. Our course is three-zero-zero at 15 knots, operating in international waters."

Most of the conversations are brief and business-like, with little information shared.

But not every encounter is pleasant. The Iranians frequently send frigates and patrol craft or reconnaissance planes, including U.S.-made P-3 Orions, to watch the U.S. ships.

The Navy often responds by scrambling an F/A-18 fighter to intercept and shadow Iranian planes.

This sort of low-level chatter, which is really back-channel diplomacy, was also common during the Cold War. Our Navy in particular has a long tradition of dealing with our adversaries and even our enemies diplomatically as well as militarily. Before modern telecommunications made it possible for Washington to imagine that it could micromanage every interaction in every potential conflict, naval officers essentially spoke for the United States all over the world. This forced them to understand America's interests at a strategic level, and they did a pretty good job of advancing them (see Max Boot's excellent The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power for much more). It is not entirely obvious that we are better off now that we can -- in theory -- regulate our soldiers, sailors, and diplomats down to the last twitch.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jun 07, 04:18:00 PM:

I was one of those talking with the Iranians occasionally back in the 90's. While the bridge comms were businesslike, the probing incidents with the RG small boats were provocative enough that the USN place 25mm chain guns on every warship. The USN sunk the IN in the late 80's....the Iranians have not forgotten.  

By Blogger antithaca, at Thu Jun 07, 06:47:00 PM:

Does anybody even remember Stephen Decatur today?

And I'm not talking about sinking the USS Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor...I'm talking about the fleet of ships he took to Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli 10 yrs later...where he secured peace treaties, at *their* cost and secured the release of prisoners. Again, at no cost.

Luckily, Washington (DC type) was not able to intervene in his efforts.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jun 08, 12:48:00 AM:

"Gold Braid and Foreign Relations" by David Long details the diplomatic activities of US Naval Officers over a 100 year period.
The fact is that we are less served by todays communication with "home" than we were before.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Fri Jun 08, 06:44:00 PM:

There's some good stuff on this in Michael Oren's book, "Power, Faith, and Fantasy, America in the Middle East 1776 to Present."


By Blogger antithaca, at Sat Jun 09, 10:00:00 PM:

Yes, Michael Oren's book is excellent. Specifically, regarding the Armenian genocide and how it was handled by two American administrations.

His book highlights two different approaches. One by T. Roosevelt who sent gunboats to "rattle the Sultans windows" (stopping the genocide, at least for a while). And another approach by W. Wilson. No gunboats. No results.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 09, 08:11:00 AM:


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