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Dire Straits

by Archives January 15, 2008

Once more, the spectre of war has risen over the Middle East, sparked by a naval confrontation between the United States and Iran in the straight of Hormuz. Tensions are high and with the two countries facing off in such a narrow waterway, even a small spark could ignite a regional powder keg.
Some of the details are still sketchy, but the following points have been confirmed by a Defence Department video recording. On Jan. 6 the U.S.S Port Royal, Hopper and Ingraham were cruising in international waters when they were confronted by five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Core (IRGC) boats. The Iranian vessels manoeuvred provocatively, violating the American warships’ security zones, and forcing them to take evasive action.
A message was received over standard radio frequencies stating, “I am coming to you. You will explode in [unintelligible] minutes.” The message was originally believed to originate from the IRGC boats, but subsequent analysis indicates that it was probably broadcast from somewhere on the Iranian coast.
Responding to the threat, the destroyer U.S.S Hopper prepared to open fire but, fortunately, the IRGC boats turned around and returned to Iranian waters. According to the U.S. Navy’s rules of engagement the use of lethal force is authorized in defence of a ship’s security zone. In fact, with the memory of the U.S.S Cole bombing in 2000 still fresh in the minds of many sailors, it is surprising that the confrontation didn’t escalate.
Commenting on the events of Jan. 7, the Iranian Foreign Ministry described the encounter as “an ordinary occurrence.” In recent days, the U.S. Navy has released reports of other, similar, incidents on Dec. 19 and 22. In the first case the U.S.S Whitby Island fired warning shots when a single Iranian vessel came within 460 meters.
United States President George W. Bush called the event “a dangerous gesture” and warned that “there will be serious consequences if they attack our ships.”
The President’s warning should not be taken lightly. Throughout history, almost every American war has been triggered by threats to their ships, maritime commerce or its freedom to navigate the seas. Pirate attacks on shipping in the Mediterranean led Thomas Jefferson to commit to the First Barbary War in 1801. The sinking of the U.S.S Maine instigated the Spanish-American war. The sinking of the Lusitania, amongst other ships, led the United States to enter WWI and the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour drew America into WWII. In the 1960s, the Gulf of Tonkin incident allowed Lyndon Johnson to escalate the Vietnam War.
The United States occupies a unique geographic position, as the dominant power on its continent, it is isolated from all of its adversaries by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As long as no other power threatens American naval supremacy and as long as Canada and Mexico remain comparative military weaklings, the continental United States cannot be invaded. This makes complete, worldwide, naval supremacy a central pillar of American foreign policy; one that has always and will always be defended.
Both U.S. Secretary of Defence and Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, have advised naval officers to use extreme caution in the face of Iranian actions. Despite this, there are almost no communication channels between American and Iranian naval commanders, and thus no means to halt a conflict from spiraling out of control.
All it could take is one anxious naval gunner, or one miscalculated Iranian provocation, to stretch an arc of conflict from the Western Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush.

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