Calming the Waters in the Gulf

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 06/04/07):

Here's an American acronym we ought to translate promptly into the Iranian language of Farsi: INCSEA.

It's shorthand for a May 1972 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to prevent dangerous incidents at sea, and it's a model for how to begin reducing dangerous tensions with Iran.

The moment for such a dialogue is ripe, now that the Iranians have opted for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis they provoked two weeks ago when they seized15 British sailors and marines in disputed waters off the Iraqi coast. The British hostages are back home, but it's obvious that a better system is needed to avoid confrontations in the crowded waters of the northern Persian Gulf.

U.S. naval commanders with the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain have been interested for many months in the possibility of a "naval hotline." They know how quickly an incident in the Gulf could trigger an inadvertent escalation that could push the United States and Iran toward war. U.S. admirals are said to favor some system that would allow them to talk directly with the Iranian navy and, more important, with the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval forces that seized the British sailors.

The current system for avoiding confrontations is informal and haphazard. The U.S. Navy, in effect, draws imaginary lines in the Gulf and stays within those boundaries. By repeating the same patterns over and over, it signals to the Iranians that it doesn't have hostile intent. But one unplanned action -- a loose torpedo that strikes an American warship -- and the two nations could be on the verge of war.

"Our naval commanders are very concerned about confrontation coming out of misunderstanding," says Eric Thompson, who directs the international affairs group of the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington think tank.

The INCSEA agreement was negotiated during the dark years of the Cold War, after a series of dangerous incidents involving the U.S. and Soviet navies. In May 1967, two Soviet warships collided with the American destroyer USS Walker while it was escorting a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan. That was part of an ongoing game of "chicken" at sea, with American jets routinely buzzing Soviet warships.

What finally prompted action was an incident involving a British ship. The aircraft carrier Ark Royal collided with a Soviet destroyer in November 1970, killing a number of Soviet sailors. Moscow decided to accept an American proposal for "Safety at Sea" talks, and the roiling waters began to calm.

The American assigned to lead the U.S. negotiating team was none other than John Warner, then undersecretary of the Navy and now a U.S. senator from Virginia. As the negotiations progressed, Warner invited the Soviet delegation to his house for dinner -- where they watched President Richard Nixon announce the mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam. The Russian admiral leading the Soviet delegation turned to Warner and said, "I need another bourbon; this matter is for the politicians to decide," according to naval historian David F. Winkler in his book "Cold War at Sea."

INCSEA talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran aren't likely to involve bourbon. But the Cold War agreement offers some useful guideposts. The United States and the Soviet Union pledged in 1972 to try to avoid collisions, to refrain from close surveillance and to inform each other before potentially dangerous maneuvers. Most important, they agreed to exchange information promptly through naval attachés in the event of an incident and to hold annual meetings to review how the agreement was working.

This confidence-building measure followed the 1963 hotline agreement that established a direct communications link between the White House and the Kremlin. The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis had convinced both sides that the risk of misunderstanding in a crisis was too high -- and that they needed some reliable channel for contact. Surely we are at a similar moment now with Iran, when the risks of escalation are obvious to everyone.

Perhaps the British, who have diplomatic relations with Iran, could begin the dialogue about an INCSEA for the Persian Gulf. The goal would be an official blessing for navy-to-navy contacts. The British could then draw in the United States for a broader discussion about naval "rules of the road" in the Gulf. It might make sense to embed this naval hotline in a larger framework for discussing regional security, similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which helped defuse Cold War tensions.

Crisis brings opportunity. The British sailors and marines are back home. The Iranians are patting themselves on the back for exercising restraint. Now it's time for discussions that begin to move Iran and the West back from the brink.