Outlawing diplomacy with Iran comes with dangerous repercussions

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Why is this so dangerous?  Because in the Persian Gulf, near run-ins between American and Iranian vessels are averted more frequently than many realize. If the no-contact provision were enacted, it would outlaw the U.S. Navy’s bridge-to-bridge communications with Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf – communications that are crucial to enabling safe transit and preventing confrontation in the often crowded waterways through which 20% of the world’s oil supplies flow.

If an Iranian vessel were to approach aggressively a U.S. vessel – as happens all too often – our sailors would be legally barred from making contact with the offending ship.  Our sailors would have to send a request up the chain of command to the President, who would have to submit a waiver to Congress. They would then need to wait 15 days for the waiver to take effect before they would have permission to communicate with the Iranian vessel. These sailors barely have fifteen minutes to defuse these situations, let alone fifteen days.

These dangerous scenarios in the Persian Gulf prompted then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen to warn in October, “If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

Mullen’s concern is that, without more robust channels of communication, an accidental confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf could quickly escalate into all out war.  Mullen argued for a hotline with Iran and said we need to pursue communication through “any channel that’s open.”

But instead of taking Mullen’s advice and broadening these channels, the House will vote today on whether to eliminate the few channels of communication left.

We should not be imposing restrictions regarding who our soldiers may and may not contact in the midst of a dangerous situation. The same goes for imposing restrictions on our diplomats.  Anybody who thinks that the U.S.-Iran conflict is not a dangerous state that could spiral out of control into war has not been paying enough attention.  But the House may very well vote to prevent potential diplomatic contacts to diffuse and eventually resolve the situation.

We only need to be reminded of the Cuban missile crisis, which lasted twelve days, to understand the importance of uncompromised diplomacy. Imagine if the Kennedy Administration were legally required to wait fifteen days before engaging and preventing the unthinkable.

Supporters of H.R.1905 have reasoned that the no-contact provision has enough caveats to not encumber potential negotiations with Iran.  But if this is the case, it is unclear what is the intended effect of the measure.  In practice, the prospect of diplomats being prescribed by statute to only deal with certain Iranian officials and not others will only add further obstacles to the perfect storm of mutual obstruction and escalation that has prevented any diplomatic progress between the U.S. and Iran.

Diplomacy is the only tool available to establish limits on Iran’s nuclear program to prevent a nuclear-weapons capable Iran and to prevent war.  That is why supporters of H.R.1905 say that the point of these sanctions is to pressure Iran back to the table.  But if that strategy works, will our diplomats be allowed to speak with the Iranians once we get them there?

Abdi is Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council