By Steven S. Honigman, William J. Parker III and Kawa Hassan
The July shoot down of an Iranian drone whose flight threatened a U.S. Navy warship could have triggered a broader military confrontation. Escorting commercial ships with naval forces could have the same outcome. We propose a multi-national approach that could be an effective first step toward defusing naval tensions in and above the international waters bordering Iran.
Two years ago, under the auspices of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the EastWest Institute joined with fellow nongovernmental organization Search For Common Ground to convene a group of retired admirals and maritime, legal and security specialists from nine countries, including American and Iranian participants. Our goal was to create an informal “Track Two” document to express a set of shared understandings that could prevent unintended and unwanted incidents at sea in the Persian Gulf region, and also provide lines of communication to manage and resolve any such incidents before they escalate into unintended military conflict.
The document we produced has since been reviewed, revised and refined. We believe that if the U.S., Iran and other countries operating in the Gulf were each to subscribe to it, the undertakings they would give to abide by its provisions would begin to build confidence and trust between them.
The Geneva Document to Prevent Incidents at Sea proposes rules to enhance the safety of American, Iranian and other countries’ sailors and aviators in the Gulf near Iran. It is not an agreement with Iran or with the U.S. And it does not limit any navy’s rights under international law to be present and operate lawfully in the Gulf. Instead, it is intended as a good faith measure in which the U.S., Iran and other countries would each individually send a letter to the Swiss government affirming how that country would conduct its naval and aviation operations.
Significantly, the rules that the Geneva Document prescribe are primarily negative. They describe dangerous or provocative actions that the signing country’s ships and aircraft, including drones, will not take to avoid creating an incident that could escalate into a military conflict where personnel could be injured, lives could be lost or national assets could be damaged or destroyed.
To comply, each signing country’s ships and aircraft, including drones, would maintain a safe distance when encountering another country’s ships at sea and would avoid maneuvering that could interfere with a formation of another country’s ships. To avoid provocations or misunderstanding, ships and aircraft would not simulate attacks by aiming guns or other weapons or launchers at another country’s ships, aircraft or drones; would not direct searchlights or lasers at their personnel; and would not jam or interfere with their communication systems. In addition, their ships and aircraft would operate in strict compliance with established professional standards and rules of the road, including the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, called COLREGS.
Despite good intentions and careful seamanship, inadvertent incidents may nevertheless occur. For that reason, the Geneva Document also sets up procedures for managing and resolving conflicts. Accordingly, the signing countries would publish approved contact details including specific communications frequencies and telephone numbers to facilitate timely unit and/or senior level consultation if an incident takes place. And to encourage long-term professional relationships to develop, the signing countries would participate at annual senior-level meetings to review the Geneva Document’s implementation and lessons learned from it.
The Geneva Document’s approach is not new. The precedent it draws upon is the U.S.–U.S.S.R. Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) that was signed at the height of the Cold War in 1972, and has worked successfully to prevent or contain and resolve unwanted naval conflicts between them ever since.
President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders turned away from the brink of military strikes and armed conflict during the summer. At and since the G-7 meeting, there has been talk of possible high-level meetings between or among national representatives. Contemporaneous notices by the U.S., Iran and other countries to third-party Switzerland that they will follow expressed rules to avoid unintended incidents at sea are a common-sense step forward. Implementing the Geneva Document will not resolve the fundamental issues between the United States and Iran. But taking provocative, apparently hostile military maneuvers off the table will allow them to be addressed without the risk that an unwanted flash point or miscalculation could lead to a shooting war instead.