Today’s encounter between a U.S. contracted Naval vessel, the Westward Venture carrying U.S. military hardware through the Persian Gulf, and two speedboats once again raises the specter of how easily such an incident could ignite a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
According to the Washington Post article, “the U.S. ship initiated bridge-to-bridge communications, and, after receiving no response, it fired a flare. The speed boats continued to approach, so the ship fired warning shots with a .50-caliber machine gun and M16 rifle. The boats then left the area.”
Initial news headlines all pointed the blame towards Iran. However, according to Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Navy's Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, soon afterwards, an Iranian coast guard boat queried the Western Venture. Robertson said it was unclear whether that was one of the small boats. Robertson added, “There have been some Iranian boats that have operated this way, and some unidentified boats.” She also said that the crew had no voice communication with the small boats.
This most recent incident once again proves how desperately the U.S. and Iran need a “hotline,” or similar official line of communication to ensure that such incidents do not escalate into armed conflict.
Meanwhile, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a news conference that the Pentagon is planning for "potential military courses of action" against Iran, criticizing what he called the Tehran government's "increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq. Admiral Mullen began the press conference by stating: “First, on Iran, I've been clear lately that I'm extremely concerned about what I believe to be an increasingly lethal and malign influence by that government and the Qods Force in particular in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. I believe recent events, especially the Basra operation, have revealed just how much and just how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability. Their support to criminal groups in the form of munitions and training, as well as other assistance they are providing and the attacks they are encouraging, continues to kill coalition and Iraqi personnel. The Iranian government pledged to halt such activities some months ago. It's plainly obvious they have not. Indeed, they seem to have gone the other way.” He also said evidence in regards to Iran’s role in Iraq would be forthcoming.
Admiral Mullen also said, “It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability.” He made clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution to the tensions with Iran and reiterated, “I have no expectations that we're going to get into a conflict with Iran in the immediate future.” He added that the “solution right now still lies in using other levers of national power, including diplomatic, financial and international pressure.”