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Things are getting out of hand in the Persian Gulf.
The murderous cannon firing by nervous and trigger-happy Navy personnel on the supply ship USS Rappahannock off the coast of Dubai earlier this week, which killed an Indian fisherman and wounded three of his companions as they motored past the US vessel shows how easily a deadly and hard to stop new war in the Gulf region — this time between the US and Iran — could start.
This time it was a fishing boat carrying Indians from Tamil Nadu state. Next time, however, it could as easily be an Iranian patrol boat, or even just an Iranian fishing boat that gets shot up or sunk by nervous US sailors. If that happens, then what?
Would Iran and its military sit tight and accept such an act, as the country did when the US shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988?
Maybe, and maybe not.
I suppose if the US were to shoot up an Iranian civilian vessel, and then apologized adequately, there might be no consequences, but then, the record suggests that the US doesn’t have an easy time apologizing for such atrocities. Look what it took to get a US apology for the murderous actions (in broad daylight on a crowded street) of CIA contract worker Raymond Davis in Pakistan. He
slaughtered two young Pakistanis with gunshots to the back and execution shots to the head, and his later arrest by Pakistani police led to the running down and killing of another innocent Pakistani man by other CIA officers racing to rescue Davis in their SUV. Only months later, when he was facing trial on murder charges, did the US stop demanding his release and finally finally apologize and pay a death compensation payment to the families of those killed, as well as to the family of a young wife of one of the slain men, who subsequently committed suicide by ingesting poison.
It also took months for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the head of the US military operation in Afghanistan to apologize to Pakistan for the slaughter, by helicopter gunships, of 28 soldiers manning a Pakistani mountaintop outpost, in an incident that has never really been adequately explained.
The way things are moving in the Gulf region though, there might not be time to wait several months for an apology in such a situation.
If the US Navy were to attack or sink an Iranian Navy vessel, or shoot down an Iranian military plane, whether deliberately or because of the nervous overreaction of some low-ranking sailors or soldiers manning a gun or rocket-launcher, even a quick apology might not prevent an Iranian response.
I used to think that a US attack on Iran was unlikely. The US military is, after all, very thinly stretched these days, confronted as it is with a far more assertive Chinese Navy in the Pacific and the South China Sea, with a quagmire in its war in Afghanistan, a civil war in Syria, fighting and instability in Yemen and Somalia, continuing unrest in Iraq, and of course a newly reassertive Russia. It also faces enormous budget pressure at home. Add to that a weakening US and global economy that could be thrown into severe crisis by the oil price shock that would surely accompany any active war between the US and Iran.
And yet, the decision by the US to send more attack aircraft, troops and ships to the regions around Iran and to step up covert actions against Iran, including sending in drone aircraft like the one captured a few months ago by Iranian forces, massively increases the chance of something going terribly wrong and setting off just such a conflict.
Some analysts have been arguing that the US genuinely doesn’t want a war with Iran, and is only stepping up its military presence around Iran as a way of deterring Israel from attacking. That could well be the case, but it’s a dangerous strategy, because all those US weapons systems, manned by young men and women in uniform who have their hands on the triggers, can easily be fired if those people feel personally threatened by what they perceive to be Iranian attackers. Aboard those Navy vessels, the USS Cole is on everyone’s mind. That destroyer was nearly sunk by a big hole blasted in its side by a small suicide boat that motored up to its side while it was sitting in a harbor in Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000.
What is needed now is restraint. Clearly the US should cool its rhetoric and pull all offensive weaponry out of the Persian Gulf and away from the vicinity of Iran. Iran, for its part, would do well not to have its military vessels behave aggressively or provocatively in the vicinity of US warships.
During the worst days of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union established a hotline that allowed the leaders of the two countries to talk directly in the event of a crisis. There were plenty of crises, too, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and many tense incidents involving submarines bumping into each other or being bumped by ships of the other side. Yet in all those decades, there was never a hot war between the two adversaries.
It might be a good idea for Tehran and Washington to set up a dedicated red phone line to prevent a war neither side could possibly want.
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.
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