Deadly Echoes – Talks in Tehran, 2004

The Colonel from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was visibly annoyed. How, he said, could I possibly suggest talking directly with American warships when they are simply following orders from Washington, and a constant provocation and threat to Iranian sovereignty! My reply was equally emphatic, although genuinely sympathetic because this was not just a debating position but, literally, a potential matter of life and death. Our resulting animated but cordial discussion extended well into post-meeting teatime. Now, more than fifteen years later, the tragic deaths of 176 innocent civilians aboard Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 are a haunting reminder of that exchange.

I’d been invited to Tehran to conduct a round-table on maritime safety in the Caspian Sea, and we’d been discussing mechanisms for preventing misunderstandings and incidents between naval forces of the five littoral states (Iran, Russia, and the three recently independent former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). There are a number of such arrangements around the world, the classic example being a highly successful arrangement for prevention of incidents at sea between the Soviet Union and United States, established during the height of the Cold War and emulated by most other NATO and Warsaw Pact navies. That had been instrumental in defusing many potentially volatile incidents during the Cold War, and laid a foundation for broader positive cooperation after it ended.

In Tehran we were exploring principles rather than specifics, so I had suggested that Iran consider the experience of its Russian neighbour and explore prospects for a similar arrangement with the United States to increase stability and prevent unintended incidents in the strategically volatile Persian Gulf.(*)  If Americans could do that with Russia, which US President Reagan had called an “Evil Empire”, then why not with Iran, which President George W. Bush had dubbed part of an “Axis of Evil”? Why not challenge the US to come to the table and create a similar arrangement? It was that which prompted the colonel’s outburst.

I replied that, to understand why, we had only to think back sixteen years to a time of tension and uncertainty when 290 Iranian civilians, 66 of them children, had been killed when a highly sophisticated US air defence warship, USS Vincennes, mistook a regularly scheduled Iran Air passenger flight for an attacking aircraft, shooting it down over Iranian territorial waters. Forget political rhetoric, I said. We both know it was a tragic tactical-level error. No American set out to kill Iranian civilians that day. Aboard Vincennes it was a culmination of human failings, bad judgement, misperception, dysfunctional professional culture and lack of communication at an intense moment. That is why, no matter how hostile states may be, no matter how tense relationships may grow, it is absolutely vital in today’s complex and fast-moving world to have ways to talk to each other: to communicate intentions clearly, to prevent misunderstandings, to clarify confusion and if, despite all that something unintended still happens, to manage events rather than improvising and trusting to luck.

Now, as we begin the year 2020 with another period of tension and uncertainty in that region, another 176 civilians,  including children, have been killed; this time when it appears that a highly sophisticated Iranian air defence system may have mistaken a regularly scheduled Ukrainian passenger flight for an attacking aircraft, shooting it down over Iranian territory. If this is so, we must beware of political rhetoric and posturing. Like the downing of Iran Air 655, this may well have been a tragic mistake at the tactical level – a culmination of human failings, bad judgment, misperception, dysfunctional professional culture and lack of communication during a tense time. Sooner or later the truth will out. But this is the kind of thing that can happen when hostile governments ratchet up tension without having robust incident management arrangements in place.

Note: The day after this was written the Iranian government, to its credit, admitted that its forces had indeed shot down the aircraft, accepting responsibility and expressing regret. This contrasts with the unapologetic US stance on the Vincennes incident 32 years earlier and cannot have been an easy decision, considering domestic political factors. One can only hope that the US administration will be shrewd enough to resist the temptation of crowing to its own nationalist base, give the Iran regime the benefit of the doubt and take this as a signal of a desire to de-escalate.

As I’ve written elsewhere, John Stoessinger’s study of Why Nations Go to War identified several common factors, chief among them that each war he studied began with either misperception or accident. In an age of weapons of mass destruction and hair-trigger response, we can no longer afford the luxury of trusting to gut feelings and improvisation. Our most dangerous enemies are not so much other nations (or, more precisely, the governments of other nations) but rather our common human failings, misunderstanding and misperceptions. Even when incidents don’t escalate into outright conflict, innocents still pay the price for the egos and dogmas of old men (US President Trump turns 74 in June and Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Khamenei will be 81 in April). Sometimes I’m inclined to agree with retired US General Omar Bradley: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

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(*) Throughout recorded history, dating back at least as far as the Greek geographers Strabo and Ptolemy, this body of water has been universally known as the Persian Gulf and is so recognized by the United Nations. With the rise of Arab nationalism (and oil wealth) in the 1960s, Arab littoral states began referring to it as the “Arabian Gulf”. Officially the United States still recognizes “Persian” but in practice, particularly within the US military, it follows its allies rather than international norms.