The tense encounter between a squadron of US Navy Warships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) and Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IIRN) boats is not a new adventure by any stretch of the imagination. However, the most recent incident is neither an attempt to create a modern-day Gulf of Tonkin incident nor a move by the IRGC to a new tactic with which to harass passing ships. There is a long history of American and Iranian naval confrontation that spans over 20 years here. An accurate reading of what has happened and what could happen, should inform the reader of what most likely did happen.
A Long History of Confrontation
Strait of Hormuz
Since the mid-1980s, both the IRGC and the Iranian Navy have been coming to close quarters with the US Navy in the Strait of Hormuz (SOH). The IRGC is an independent paramilitary arm that operates its own bases, personnel and vessels in the Gulf. It supplements the strategic political and military goals of the Iranian government. Operating from the small Iranian islands of Farsi, Sirri, Abu Musah and Larak, the Guard Corps played an aggressors role in many incidents of sabotage and raids during the Iran-Iraq war including attacks on Kuwaiti owned but US flagged tankers, the mining of the major sea lanes near Bahrain and Qatar and direct confrontations with US Navy warships.
During the late 1980s, numerous IRGC small craft and warships were sunk by the US Navy. The hardest to catch and most satisfying to destroy were the Swedish manufactured Boghammar high speed boat operated by the IRGC. The cat and mouse game of high speed naval chase and destroy was known to fleet officers as Bowling for Boghammars.
In 1987, the IRGC was tasked with disrupting the Iraqi oil flow that was being transshipped on tankers from Kuwait. They started tracking and attacking these ships in the western and eastern approaches to the SOH with high speed boats (HSBs). In the SOH itself, the IRGC has nearly always operated like a mini-pirate fleet. Crossing sea lanes, hazarding navigation and interrogating vessels in international waters. Though Oman has patrol authority and navigational control of the SOH, Iran's Pasdaran have been an uncontrollable force. Using HSBs, they zipped in and out from Bandar Abbas and inspected or boarded vessels as they pleased. Once nearby they would video tape or board suspect vessels they thought could be supporting Iraq. Working in conjunction with the Iranian Navy -- a tanker could be inspected in a friendly manner by the Navy the morning but the task of attacking them would fall to the IRGC who would come at dusk and blast away on the ship with its machine guns and anti-tank rockets through the night.
In 1987 and 1988, the IRGC and IIRN suffered losses of Boghammars to a wide variety of special operations and direct naval confrontation. The Iranian Navy supported IRGC operations as well, including using a logistic vessel, the Iran Ajr to lay mines off Bahrain-- it was captured with its crew and hidden mines by Navy SEALs. Nevertheless, the IRGC mining of the sea lanes a year later would result in a US Frigate, the USS Samuel B. Roberts being severely damaged. Iran would come to lose a frigate and two IRGC controlled oil platforms to a wave of US bombs and missiles as well as losing a patrol boat sunk in a ship-to-ship missile duel with a US cruiser in Operation Praying Mantis. It was a small scale surface battle between five Boghammars and the USS Vincennes that resulted in the accidental shooting down of the Iran Air flight 655 as it innocently flew towards Dubai from Bandar Abbas. That incident resulted in the deaths of 290 passengers. Despite the losses, the IRGC saw the value in having hundreds of small high speed craft ready for harassment of tankers and raids on neighboring nation's oil platforms. In the 1990s, the Iranian naval capability increased with the addition of Chinese naval vessels, anti-ship missiles and Russian submarines.
This history of hostility forms the basis of the lessons learned for US commanders as they transit the SOH. From the mid-1980s, US Navy vessels were outfitted with cannons and machine guns for the anti-small boat fight. After the 2000 suicide boat attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors and the open ocean suicide boat attack on the tanker MV Limburg, US Navy Captains became even more wary of any small craft approaching at high speed. Top that with dozens of suicide high speed boat attacks carried out in Sri Lanka against troop transports and other naval craft and you have a base-line for paranoia that is professionally sound. The war in Iraq has also provided reason for caution on the part of the US Navy. Al Qaeda in Iraq carried out a successful suicide boat attack near Umm Qasr that killed and wounded several US Navy sailors.
The Iranians only add to the psychological pressure that makes routine contacts between the two forces tense. The commander of the Iranian Navy recently stated that his forces would carry out suicide missions if necessary. In November 2007, General Ali Fadavi stated to Iranian news that "If necessary, we will use the element of martyrdom-seeking and we will become people of Ashura..." Statements like this coupled with recent trend in maritime suicide bombings and the long history of antagonism between the two navies can make the most innocent contact a potential for an international crisis.
Provocative Iranian Tactics
The IRGC is well aware that the US Navy is overly cautious about high speed craft being used as "maritime suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices" (M-SVBIEDs) of the type used in Iraq, Yemen and Sri Lanka. That is what makes IRGC small boat operations in the SOH provocative and effective as intimidation tools. The recent video footage of the engagement shows multiple IRGC vessels using a "swarming" tactic. This is when a small group of ships surrounds a larger vessel and makes runs direct towards them in an effort to provoke a response. If it were intended as suicide attack, this high speed dash for the side of the ship would be the last thing a US Navy crewman would see before an explosion.
In the January 7 incident, the IRGC vessels broke off their high speed runs approximately 300 yards away from the US Navy vessels. However, for a US Captain to know which vessel is innocent, which is a decoy and which was a waterborne bomb is extremely difficult. Although US strategic and theater intelligence on Iranian Navy and IRGC operations is excellent, there is no way to know at the individual boat level if the next high speed boat run at a US Navy vessel will result in the first of a wave of terrorist attacks.
Iranian Aggression or Bush's Gulf of Tonkin Incident?
Given all the factors and the evidence by both the US Navy and Iranian video, this was a simple harassment and surveillance mission carried out by the IRGC on US Navy vessels as the opportunity arose. The boxes thrown into the water were most likely ammunition packaging as they prepared to be engaged and engage the US ships. For reasons I am sworn to secrecy over I can assure you that Iranian high speed boats do not warn on bridge-to-bridge radio that they are making a suicide attack. No terrorist would. Here are some facts that will clarify matters.
U.S. Navy video of Iranian boats confronting U.S. warships.
International Bridge-to-Bridge operates on VHF Channel 16 worldwide. It is the one radio channel that is openly broadcast and repeated throughout the length of the Arabian Gulf. Because of the repeater system operated by the Gulf States and Iran, ship captains from Kuwait City to Qatar to Bandar Abbas can generally hear the same communications. Channel 16 is also filled with bored sailors who listen and comment on events as they occur. I cannot tell you how many times on Channel 16 I have heard the famous "Filipino Monkey," a veteran Filipino sailor (or series of sailors) who I can safely assure you operates from the harbor tower at Dubai Port (the strongest transmitter in the Gulf), comment on whatever activity happens to be the most exciting or endless taunting of ship crews about the gymnastic characteristics of the opposite sex. In this incident it was most likely not the Filipino Monkey. The comment "You will explode after some minutes" most likely came from the empty super tanker seen three to five miles away in the distance that could see the whole event and decided to have some fun. In my experience, nothing is more amusing to many bored merchant tanker crews or harbor monitors (like Filipino Monkey) than real time commentary on an incident between two navies. Filipino Monkey once commented at the height of a naval battle in 1988 "Uh-Oh, Ayatollah! The US Navy is kicking your ass!" as reports of burning oil platforms and Maydays from sinking Iranian ships were broadcast from all over the gulf. News reports and commentaries from recent days about the lack of wind or engine noise on a three man high speed boat also correctly indicates that that transmission came from an enclosed bridge. Based on signal strength of the transmission on the US Navy ship's bridge radio, relative to other traffic, the transmitting vessel was probably operating in visual range of the incident and was inserting an unwelcome level of tension that could have proven calamitous.
The situation was not helped by the intense information war between the two nations and which has once again revealed the amateurishness of the US efforts to get a clear message out. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly stated a fact about these incidents "This is an ordinary issue that happens for the two sides every once in a while and after the identification of the two sides, the issue is resolved."
However, the media pounced on the White house's comment about the incident being "a provocative act." Secretary of Defense Gate's crucial and honest backtracking on the incident led to accusations of a new Gulf of Tonkin incident. Despite the belief by some quarters that the US Navy and Department of Defense would do anything to produce propaganda making the Iranians look bad, the video footage in not only authentic but routine in nature for the SOH.
Beware of Scenario Fulfillment
The transit through the narrow straits puts US warships close to Iranian waters, particularly the Iranian naval base at Bandar Abbas. In addition, a wide variety of Iranian, Omani, United Arab Emirates and western coalition naval vessels transit through, patrol or operate in the area. As a principle tanker route for Iranian, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Iraqi, Emirati and Bahraini ships bringing oil to the western and Asian markets, the SOH is usually a jam-packed narrows.
US Navy commanders have a daunting challenge to ensure that their ships remain safe from state and non-state terrorists while conducting their freedom to operate in international waters. On the other hand, the IRGC have the mission of pressuring that freedom and asserting their nation's ability to operate as they please in a manner, which could appear to be an asymmetric threat. This thin line between the need for defense against a terrorist threat and allowing the Iranians to operate in international waters lends friction to any close encounters in the Strait of Hormuz.
The risk here is that the White House and Pentagon staffers may have a political scenario in their head that will always explains routine incidents such as these in a hostile, dangerous light. As tensions and rhetoric escalates they may fall victim to "scenario fulfillment" (the same group think that the crew of the USS Vincennes experienced in their tragic gunbattle) where the desire to attack the Iranians, who are acting out their role as "evil", is aided by the ease of which Iranian activities, however mundane can be seen as belligerent. To the hawks in the administration, the Iranians want to start a war because they are "Islamofacists" who seek nuclear weapons and the destruction of Israel -- so of course they are trying to provoke us. That group think could translate to an expectation that retaliation is not only necessary, but mandatory in a future incident. The scenario being fulfilled (Iranians provoke a naval battle) is the cassis belli for which many hawks have been praying. In their eyes, a clash of forces can provide an opportunity for armed response that both Bush and Ahmedinejad may use to their own advantage.
Yet, in this incident, it was the cool heads of three Captains of the USS Port Royal, USS Hopper and USS Ingraham that prevailed here. It appears that they took proper defensive precautions, evaluated the threat, made no threatening actions of their own and still exercised freedom of navigation. By all rights, they could have engaged and quickly destroyed the Iranian vessels if they had felt threatened enough. That professionalism should be rewarded.
Step Away and Breath
Both sides of the American political spectrum are playing this incident for all its worth. Once again unqualified pundits range from those who accuse one side of playing down the seriousness of the incident and the other side hysterically claiming the entire incident was manufactured. Neither is correct. The incident was somewhat serious and should be watched carefully. While understanding the lack of credibility the Bush administration has on almost all military and foreign policy matters, the other side cannot go directly to a conspiracy theory to score political points. All parties should really simmer down and objectively assess how a breach of navigational protocol should not be confused as a green-light to start a war or make assertions that the administration is planning a Gulf of Tonkin-like false attack.
Laughing over Tea in the Souq al-Samak
Meanwhile down at the Bandar Abbas fish market, the Iranian boat captains are most assuredly laughing deep, satisfying laughs at the political hysteria that a routine reconnaissance mission could conjure up. The danger is that once they stop laughing someone in the Iranian government could see the value of a naval engagement pumping up the price of Iranian and Gulf oil another $10 per barrel. A small naval loss of four or five boats, provoked by the Americans could give Ahmedinejad a political result that he could take to the bank --a Swiss bank.