A Persian Gulf ‘Hot Line’ Proposed

With tensions again rising in the Persian Gulf, an accident or provocation around the narrow Strait of Hormuz could precipitate a war. In this memo for President Obama, 11 former U.S. intelligence officials urge a U.S.-Iranian system for communications — a “hot line” — in case of crisis.


FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

SUBJECT: Avoiding Spiraling Violence in the Persian Gulf

We write respectfully to call your attention to the clear and present danger of escalation in the Persian Gulf and to suggest ways to lessen that likelihood. There needs to be a reliable way for our Navy to communicate at a sufficiently high level with Iranian naval counterparts. Otherwise, incidents occasioned by accident or provocation can readily escalate in ways neither side intends.

Map of the waterways near the Strait of Hormuz

This is not a new problem; others (notably former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen) have called attention to it in the past. We do so again because of the sharply increased tensions flowing from terrorist attacks like the one on July 18 in Bulgaria in which five Israeli tourists were killed.

It is not yet known who the suicide bomber was. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the attack, a claim that has not been substantiated, and threatened retaliation. Inside Iran, terrorist attacks have claimed the lives of five Iranian scientists over the past five years, with the Iranians blaming Israel.

The recent buildup of warships in the Persian Gulf has added not only to crowding, but also to a hair-trigger, volatile environment.  On July 16, the U.S. Navy announced that a Navy refueling ship out of Bahrain, the Rappahannock, had used “lethal force” against a 50-foot pleasure craft, killing one Indian fisherman and seriously injuring three others.

The Navy said the fishermen had been given ample warning, but the three survivors insisted they had received no warning before being fired upon. And if that fishing boat had been an Iranian naval vessel?

As that recent shoot-up suggests, the waters of the Gulf offer the most likely locale for an incident that could spiral out of control. The navigable part of the Strait of Hormuz is narrow; it is an area where ships collide. In 2007, for example, the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Newport News collided with a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait while the submarine was transiting submerged.

Two years later, the USS Hartford nuclear submarine and the amphibious USS New Orleans collided in the waters between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula while on routine security patrols in that crowded shipping lane. In January 2008, five Iranian boats swarmed three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz.

The skies over that strategic area have also seen inadvertent tragedy. On July 3, 1988, the Aegis guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian passenger jetliner, Iran Air Flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 passengers. Iran Air Flight 655 was on a scheduled daily flight using established air lanes from Bandar Abbas, Iran, to Dubai, when the Vincennes mistakenly identified it as a fighter aircraft.

The Vincennes had sent a radio warning on the international air distress frequency, but gave incorrect altitude and position information on the plane. Thus, even if the Flight 655 crew were tuned in, they may have thought the warning was directed at some other flight. A U.S. Navy frigate, the USS Sides, reported that Iranian plane was climbing, not diving to attack, at the time of the missile strike.

Preventive Measures

At a press conference on July 2, 2008, the JCS Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that military-to-military dialogue could “add to a better understanding” between the U.S. and Iran. As far as we are aware, no such dialogue has been established.

Just before he retired, Admiral Mullen bemoaned the inevitable, and unnecessary, risk stemming from the absence of military-to-military ties: “We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979. We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, and there will be miscalculation, which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

The following two modest proposals could go a long way toward avoiding an armed confrontation with Iran, whether accidental or provoked by any who may actually wish to precipitate hostilities involving the U.S. in the area of the Persian Gulf.

1 Establish a direct communications link between U.S. and Iranian naval commanders in the Persian Gulf area and also between top military officials in Washington and Tehran, in order to reduce the danger of accident, miscalculation, or provocation.

2 Launch immediate negotiations by top Iranian and American naval officers to conclude an incidents-at-sea protocol.

A communications link has historically proven its merit during times of high tension between potential enemies. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 underscored the need for instantaneous communications at senior levels, and a “hot line” between Washington and Moscow was established the following year.

That direct link played a crucial role in preventing the spread of war in the Middle East during the Six-Day War in early June 1967.

Another useful precedent is the “Incidents-at-Sea” agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, signed in Moscow in May 1972. That was another time of considerable tension between the two countries, including several inadvertent naval encounters that could well have escalated. The agreement sharply reduced the likelihood of such incidents.

We would regard with suspicion any who would oppose such common-sense measures to prevent escalation. A number of U.S. commanders in the Persian Gulf have favored such steps in the past, according to press reports. And, as indicated above, Admiral Mullen appealed explicitly for military-to-military dialogue.

The U.S. military’s feasibility analysis regarding an incidents-at-sea agreement is now with the Senate Armed Services Committee. At a bare minimum, such an agreement should be concluded as expeditiously as possible. We strongly urge you to marshal White House pressure behind getting that done.

If this promising initiative is delayed or tabled, we respectfully suggest that you consider ways to use your executive power to implement whatever steps might be possible to establish direct communication channels with appropriate Iranian authorities immediately.

For Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

Kathleen Christison, former CIA analyst

Ray Close, former CIA Chief of Station, Saudi Arabia

Phil Geraldi, former CIA operations officer

David MacMichael, former history professor, CIA analyst, and estimates officer, National Intelligence Council

Tom Maertens, former Foreign Service Officer and National Security Council Director for Non-Proliferation

Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer and CIA analyst

Elizabeth Murray, former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East

Paul Pillar, former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East

Coleen Rowley, former FBI Special Agent and Minneapolis Division Counsel

Lawrence Wilkerson, Col., US Army (ret.) and former Chief of Staff, Department of State

Ann Wright, Col., US Army Reserve (ret.) and former Foreign Service Officer

5 comments for “A Persian Gulf ‘Hot Line’ Proposed

  1. incontinent reader
    August 6, 2012 at 01:01

    Its easy to be cynical about US policy and the Administration’s willingness to communicate with Iran in a meaningful way, but your proposal for a hotline is a hugely valuable one, given the risk that a war with Iran could erupt and escalate. In some ways the present volatility recalls the Cuban missile crisis which later impelled the Kennedy and Khruschev to set up the US Soviet hotline. So, one hopes you are able to get through to the Administration so that this and measures like it can be adopted to provide mechanisms to defuse the crisis and avoid unintended errors that could be avoided with immediate and direct communication.

  2. bobzz
    August 1, 2012 at 10:28

    This is a rerun of a post on another CN article. 1) China imports a goodly percentage of its oil from Iran. They may not be inclined to stand idly by while we do “surgical” strikes. 2) Highly advanced Russian missiles are beyond Aegis’ capacity for timely detection. How many of those missiles have they sent to Iran? They make our ships sitting ducks. During the Faulklands War, the Argentine AF only had five French Exocet missiles, and they sunk two British ships with heavy loss of life. More Exocets and Argentina would have won that fracas. Russia’s missiles are much more advanced than the Exocet, and Russia would love to get even with us for sending stinger missiles to help the mujahedeen chase them out of Afghanistan. And to take it a toward the unimaginable, were China to feel its interests so threatened that they decided to take on the US and Israel, the vast majority of Muslims, angry of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, might come in on China’s side, but even broader—talk about unleashing the dogs of war…WW III. International possibilities are well above my capacity, but surely someone has thought of this. If anyone remembers the Korean War, we crossed a line that China would not tolerate.

  3. joan
    August 1, 2012 at 10:01

    Great idea but that would require the Americans talking to Iran rather than dictating and threatening Iran.

    This war is coming with dire consequences for all. If the US negotiated rather than dictated, perhaps things with Iran could have been somewhat different.

    This war will explode the entire ME and spread beyond. Unlike the Iraq war, the Iran war will come to the shores of the US with multiple and sustained terror attacks. And the economy will collapse with high fuel prices and the cost of the Iran war.

    The Iran war will not be over in a few weeks or months – it will likely never be over until WMD are used.

  4. incontinent reader
    August 1, 2012 at 06:37

    An eminently sensible idea by the professionals who should be setting and executing policy, were we not already operating in the world of Dr. Strangelove, as I think F.G may be suggesting with the scenario he so riotously alludes to. (In keeping with that, just imagine the never before released version starring Red Foxx, scatology and all).

    So, one wonders if the Administration has the motivation and will to establish this improvement in a meaningful way, given its propensity to demean, sabotage, and avoid negotiating, and even communicating at all with the Iranians, lest it be castigated by the Israelis; and what about its ongoing program of assassination and Cyberwarfare while pretending to engage the Iranians? Reading all of this in the context of Panetta’s most recent public threat against Assad, whom I expect he has been trying to bump off repeatedly for a long time (though, ironically, Prince Bandhar seems to have been the latest casualty), would the phone call instead be used to pinpoint the Iranian leaders for a hellfire hello or bunker basting?

  5. F. G. Sanford
    July 31, 2012 at 20:45

    Hello? Hello? Dimitry, Are you there? Hello…Dimitry? Hello…….

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