The amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu in the Strait of Hormuz

The amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu in the Strait of Hormuz U.S. Navy

Testing the Waters for Normalizing U.S.-Iran Relations

With a newly elected president in Iran, now is the time to use maritime cooperation to try to lessen tensions between Iran and the United States. By Kevin Cosgriff and Ellen Laipson

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office at the beginning of August, hopes were cautiously raised that Iran and the United States could improve their dismal relationship of mistrust, denunciations and threats. So far, no concrete steps have been taken, but the nations might benefit if they literally tested the waters in the Persian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea to ease tensions.

U.S. and Iranian warships have faced off for more than three decades in the two strategically located bodies of water, flexing their naval muscles and raising fears that a confrontation could escalate into open warfare. While no sustained naval hostilities have broken out in these waters, there have been violent close calls.

In the late 1980s the “tanker war” between Iraq and Iran led the U.S. to increase its naval presence and the flagging of Kuwaiti vessels in the Gulf to protect them from Iranian attack.

In 1987 the U.S. destroyed Iranian oil platforms and a U.S. Navy ship was hit by a mine likely placed by Iran. An Iranian Navy ship was sunk and another severely damaged by the U.S. Navy. As recently as 2008, Iran engaged in aggressive maneuvers toward transiting U.S. Navy warships in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital transit point for Gulf oil.

Over the years there have been tentative efforts to use maritime cooperation to lessen the possibility of misunderstanding between forces on the high seas. Expanding these now to cover U.S. and Iranian naval and Coast Guard forces could be the first of the "confidence building measures" that Rouhani recently called for with the West.

One approach that could benefit both the U.S. and Iran would be the revival of an agreement in concept to improve communications between ships of the two nations.

Following a series of incidents between Soviet and U.S. navy warships at sea during the 1960s, those two nations concluded such a pact -- called the Incidents at Sea Agreement -- in 1972 to allow clear communication between ships, in a manner consistent with international maritime rules and signals, to prevent collisions and other misunderstandings.

Familiar as we were with this largely successful agreement, in 2007 Adm. William Fallon – then commander of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East – along with the co-author of this piece explored the art of the possible for an analogous, albeit less ambitious, approach with the Iranians.

This idea was endorsed by the relevant U.S. government agencies and (we believe) was accepted informally by the Iranians. If it remains in effect, it does so with little fanfare and probably little use. It could, nonetheless, be resuscitated more formally as a gesture of mutual interest in reducing tensions.

Several other factors could provide additional momentum for such a maritime agreement between the U.S. and Iran as an early step toward more normal relations. The diplomatic signaling between the office of President Rouhani and the White House has been careful but positive, with both sides apparently looking for some lessening of tensions. And notwithstanding the divide between the U.S. and Iran over Syria, ships of the two navies continue to operate in close proximity in the Gulf and North Arabian Sea.

Rouhani’s ability to recast Iran’s standing in the international community could create some welcome economic relief. President Obama could see progress with Iran as helping to provide some break from the unceasing bad news from regional capitals, such as the challenge facing America’s relationship with Egypt and the civil war in Syria.

The much-publicized U.S. realignment of military assets to the Asia-Pacific region, the shale gas revolution in North America, and the winding down of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan all point to a likely reduced American military presence in the Middle East and South Asia, albeit less so for naval forces.

Whether driven by geopolitics or pressure on the defense budget or both, an emerging reconfiguration of naval and air forces in the Gulf may in itself assuage some of Iran’s enduring fears of U.S. intentions, and provide a better environment for some modest military- to-military communications.

In the energy sector, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been investing in pipelines to reduce their dependence on the Strait of Hormuz for the export of their oil to Europe and other key markets. That too could be a positive development. It would ratchet down the strategic leverage that Iran believes it has over its neighbors and the global economy, which has been part of the logic of America’s security commitment to the region.

None of these factors alone would determine prospects for an agreement to improve ship-to-ship communications between the U.S. and Iran, but taken together, they suggest an environment in flux, and a fresh window to explore lowering the temperature in the Gulf.

As the new Iranian negotiating team prepares to return to the international talks about the nation’s nuclear ambitions, any confidence-building measures that can support an improved atmosphere for these critical negotiations would be most welcome.

Ret. U.S. Navy Adm. Kevin Cosgriff is former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces and is currently a member of the Stimson Center Board of Directors. Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of Stimson, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank.