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Security Assurances We Could Possibly Live With

October 27, 2008

Michael Levi asks what security guarantees might be persuasive to Iran and yet be responsible for us?  I’ve already proposed that the U.S. work with its friends to wage a small cold war against the current leadership in Iran.  So, the first and most immediate answer to Michael Levi’s question would be to offer one of the types security guarantees we observed with the Soviets – a freedom of naval passage or a prevention of incidents at sea agreement.  The first security offer might be a Lausanne- Montreaux -like understanding to assure both freedom of passage of all ships through and demilitarization of the Strait of Hormuz.  The second would be a naval and air rules of the road agreement for the Gulf similar to the ones that the U.S. reached with the Soviets in 1972 and 1988 and with China in 1998.  

By far the best analysis of such understandings and their possible application in the case of Iran was written by Douglas E. Streusand in an essay commissioned by my center entitled “Managing the Iranian Threat to Sea Commerce Diplomatically” in Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, pp. 257-84 available at  What follows is drawn from this analysis.

Iran has long demanded that it be given multilateral security guarantees. A good place to begin might be a Lausanne-Montreaux-like agreement assuring free passage through the Strait of Hormuz and demilitarizing it and its surrounds.  Done properly, it might be a win-win. Under such an understanding, the U.S. and other states would promise not to interfere with Iranian shipping or to attack Iranian oil or gas platforms or related facilities on or offshore in exchange for Iran pledging not to attack other countries’ shipping in the region and similar energy facilities. Such an agreement could be in all parties’ interest:  The US and its allies and Iran want Iran to continue to produce and export oil and gas and the immediate effect of such agreement would be to reduce the insurance premiums on all shipping in the region – both Iranian and non-Iranian. 

To secure such an understanding, the U.S. and other states would have to be prepared to surface their submarines before entering or leaving the Gulf and to give appropriate notice of the passage of naval combatants.  This should be worth something to the Iranian government.  On the other hand, the Iranians would have to demilitarize all military strike capabilities it has deployed in and near the Strait.  In some cases (e.g., Iranian anti-ship missiles), this would require the removal of naval strike weapons some 250 kilometers inland, and in the disputed islands of Abu Musa, the Great Tinbs, the Lesser Tunbs, and on Iran’s Sirri Island.

One could imagine that such an agreement might also require demilitarization of Iran’s naval base at Bandar Abbas and similar demilitarization of several UAE emirate bases and the tip of Musandam Peninsula, which is Omani territory.  But such a deal would be symmetrical and would require sacrifices on both. As such, it would hardly constitute a form of diplomatic tribute — as many proposed nuclear agreements might – to Iran’s revolutionary regime. To help things along, the Turks, the only Muslim NATO state with good relations with Iran and vast experience regarding the management and history of international security assurances concerning the Dardanelles, could be the key diplomatic point of contact.  Would the Iranians baulk?  Perhaps, but if so, it would more than suggest that Iran is not all that serious in its pleading for multilateral security guarantees in the first place. 

A second type of agreement that would be less demanding that could be offered to Iran might be a prevention of incidents at sea understanding.  This might include the rules of air and naval engagement that the U.S. has agreed to obey with China and previously agreed to observe with the Soviet Union (cf. The Agreement between the US and the Soviet Union on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas –INCSEA).  It also might include strictures against mining or the stockpiling of mines in the Persian Gulf.

Might such agreements be against U.S. or allied interests?  Not unless they required a general offer to forswear military action against Iran.  This would surrender essential leverage to get Iran to comply with its international obligations and to curtail its offensive behavior in the region.  That would rightly be seen as a major political victory confirming the legitimacy of the current revolutionary guard.  Given the symmetry of interests tied to these understandings, it would be self-defeating ever to make such an offer.

Of course, the Iranians might object even if they did get such a promise. They might argue that any such agreements would still leave the U.S. and its allies with naval superiority outside of the Gulf and that such power could be used to stop Iranian shipping after it passed through the Strait.  An Iranian demand to control or disarm U.S. and allied navies on the high seas, however, would be an untenable (Iran, after all, lacks a blue water naval force of its own). 

Iran, then, could reject an offer for either type of agreement. Doing so, however, would come at a high diplomatic cost.  Would Iran want to increase other states’ apprehensions that Iran was keen on interfering with shipping passing through the Strait or on targeting assets in the Gulf?  Rejecting either type of agreement would accomplish precisely that.  Indeed, it would only encourage interested states to send more ships and planes into the Gulf to prevent the prospects of such Iranian interference.  This, in turn, would only undermine Iranian strategic objectives.  Even an Iranian rejection of the two types security arrangements noted above, then, could possibly serve U.S. and allied interests just as Iranian acceptance either type of agreement might serve our interests as well.

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