A senior U.S. military commander is advocating official exchanges with Iran, the Financial Times of London reported Wednesday.[1]  --  Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, was careful to follow the official line that Iran would first have to refrain from arming resistance groups inside Iran.  --  But he dismissed expectations of a U.S. attack on Iran in 2008 as "urban legend":  "I know . . . people have this unsettled feeling . . . So every little thing now fits into this conspiracy.  Like 'there [are] two carriers, prelude to war.'" ...



By Demetri Sevastopulo

Financial Times (London)
June 4, 2008


WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. naval commander in the Middle East says contacts between the navies of the U.S. and Iran would be useful once Tehran stopped sponsoring violence inside Iraq.

Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, made his comments as Barack Obama and John McCain, the presumptive Democratic and Republican candidates for president, spar aggressively over whether Washington should engage with Tehran.

In an interview, Adm. Cosgriff told the Financial Times that the U.S. and Soviet navies had benefited from contacts during the Cold War. Asked whether similar contacts between the U.S. and Iran navies would be useful, he said: "I think they would."

Robert Gates, the defense secretary, has recently adopted a less rigid tone on talks with Iran than the White House or Mr. McCain.

He recently advocated opening new channels between the countries, though he added the U.S. should try to gain more leverage before holding talks with Tehran.

"We are coming up on 30 years' worth of strategy questions with respect to Iran and in many ways the importance of communication, of a dialogue, of having a two-way exchange . . . can't be overstated," a senior military official said.

Sitting in the Pentagon, Adm. Cosgriff explained how a 1972 agreement between the U.S. and USSR helped prevent incidents at sea from escalating into crises.

The admiral, who has also served as director of the White House situation room, said negotiations for the agreement had created long-lasting "confidence-building measures." To stress the point, he added that his last encounter with a Soviet ship off the coast of Oman about 20 years ago was "pretty routine."

"The key takeaway is it created an opportunity for the two navies to talk," said Adm. Cosgriff. "That led to other things -- visits and those sorts of things."

Adm Cosgriff has witnessed several dangerous incidents involving U.S. and Iranian ships in the Gulf. The most serious occurred in January when a U.S. warship came within 10 seconds of firing on Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats.

"It could have gone the other way," the admiral said. "The message I would want the Iranians to have taken away is that 20 U.S. sailors have died at the hands of small-boat attacks [including the 2000 USS Cole attack], and there is not a captain in the U.S. Navy . . . that does not know that."

One problem, he said, was that while the Iranian navy responded to radio calls from U.S. ships, the more aggressive Revolutionary Guard did not. He grappled with the question of whether the Revolutionary Guard navy was acting under orders, or just like "cowboys."

"Which Iran is acting here? It is mostly opaque to me. My inkling is some of the things we see are local. [But] I am not absolving accountability for the center because they have created the tone or the environment within which local commanders seem to think that they can operate this way."

Adm. Cosgriff laced his desire to have better naval relations with a dose of reality, saying that the U.S. could not have a "normal relationship" with Iran while it shipped lethal weapons to groups attacking U.S. forces in Iraq.

"That is perhaps a bridge too far. So they have to resolve some of those issues . . . before I would be suggesting doing anything like doing formal talks."

Anthony Zinni, a retired marine general and former head of central command, agreed on the need for a mechanism to prevent "unintended confrontations."

He suggested forming a Gulf naval co-ordination center, which would include Arab navies and allow bridge-to-bridge communications. The U.S. and Iranian navies could also co-ordinate search and rescue missions for missing sailors and fishermen. "These could be a starting basis, with more co-operation along the lines of Admiral Cosgriff's caveat leading to greater connections," General Zinni said.

Adm. Cosgriff dismissed reports that the U.S. will attack Iran this year as "urban legend". "I know . . . people have this unsettled feeling . . . So every little thing now fits into this conspiracy. Like 'there [are] two carriers, prelude to war.' So you say, 'just watch, watch what happens, literally two ships passing in the night in the Gulf. Case closed.' But people are inclined to think something."