The US and Iran are still perilously close to conflict

The Guardian | : Even amid the coronavirus crisis, the countries are trading threats. A de-escalation hotline is desperately needed

A dangerous encounter between the Iranian and US navies in the Persian Gulf last month, provoked by 11 Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ speedboats, and President Trump’s threat one week later to shoot Iranian gunboats out of water if this happens again, are stark reminders of the short fuse between the two countries amid growing tensions. If they want conflict to wag the dog and deflect attention from their failures to fight the Covid-19 outbreak in their respective countries, they can easily stumble into one; but if they don’t, as they often claim, they should find a way to establish a military hotline.

Imagine that the Swiss embassy in Tehran had not communicated the end of Iran’s missile attacks on US military installations in Iraq after Tehran retaliated against the US killing of its senior commander, General Qassem Suleimani, in January, helping ensure a dangerous situation did not escalate further. Or that in 2016, when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards detained 10 US sailors travelling aboard two riverine boats drifted into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, had no direct contacts with his Iranian counterpart, the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Within 30 minutes of learning of the incident, the two men spoke “at least five [times]… over a period of roughly 10 hours”. Iran released the boats and crew the following morning.

In the current climate of acrimonious exchanges between the two countries, competing claims that the other’s military is engaged in terrorist acts and little direct interaction between senior diplomats, as well as the US blacklisting of Zarif in 2019, Washington and Tehran need a military de-escalation channel to avoid inadvertent conflict in a moment of crisis.

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