Persian Gulf primed to explode
by Dr. Kaveh L Afrasiabi
July 23, 2012
The Persian Gulf powder keg may soon explode if the current cycle of mounting tensions continues unabated. Two days ago, a minor incident involving a US refueling warship and an Indian fishing boat off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) resulted in one fatality and three wounded. That the fishermen insist they were fired on without a warning – contrary to the US navy’s assertion – gives us a prelude to more ominous developments on the horizon. It seems trigger-happy American sailors see gathering clouds of conflict and are taking preemptive measures that, in this particular case, made a small dent in otherwise amicable US-India relations.
In a sign of New Delhi’s unwillingness to call for an inquiry into the incident, however, it has not voiced even a whisper of criticism of the US. Initially, US media reported that the incident was a US warning to “Iran and al-Qaeda” to stay away from US warships, in light of Iran’s renewed threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. This reflects a US siege mentality that also underscores the Persian Gulf region’s growing volatility and potential for imminent maritime tensions.
This spike in tensions is also partly due to the US navy’s bulked up presence in the region. The Pentagon on July 16 deployed an extra aircraft carrier there months ahead of schedule. It is also organizing unprecedented mine-sweeping exercise in the area – this month it deployed four additional minesweepers and additional fighter jets to the region.
The resulting overcrowding of Persian Gulf waters with the US fleet is an invitation for similar incidents to this week’ fatal encounter. Accidental confrontations could easily escalate into something bigger in coming weeks and months, particularly if the US and Iran bump into each other.
There is no guarantee that a US-Iran war would not be triggered by such incidents, since there is no military-to-military hotline or similar communications to handle such emergencies. In spite of some US overtures toward such a preventive mechanism, Iran refuses to consider it, as well as any other “incident at sea” protocols, since it regards the US presence in the Persian Gulf as fundamentally illegitimate.
The thickening fog of suspicion and mutual distrust is growing more dangerous, with the US pondering the possibility of an Iranian provocation and Tehran studying the US’s inclination to resort to shows of force to assert its hegemony. Beyond such tactical questions, the larger strategic question is what is Washington’s ultimate aim?