The United States House of Representatives has voted unanimously to require the Pentagon to consider setting up a communications channel with Iran to prevent accidental military confrontations in the Persian Gulf.
The House voted on Thursday on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that requires the Pentagon to consider the setting up of an Incidents at Sea Agreement with Iran.
The amendment had been proposed by Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and faced no opposition from the 435 sitting representatives. The US House of Representatives is majority-Republican.
The NDAA, incorporating the Thursday amendment, was itself passed at the House 344 to 81 on Friday. The bill, which authorizes defense budget and policy, approved 696 billion dollars in military spending for fiscal year 2018.
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a version of the bill in June, but the full Senate is yet to vote on the bill.
According to the Conyers and Gallego amendment, the US Department of Defense “shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report assessing the relative merits of a multilateral or bilateral Incidents at Sea military-to-military agreement between the United States, the Government of Iran, and other countries operating in the Persian Gulf aimed at preventing accidental naval conflict in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.”
The “appropriate committees” are defined in the amendment as the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, as well as the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives.
Iran maintains sovereign territory in the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, but under a regime of passage, Iran allows international innocent passage through parts of its maritime territory.
The US, an extra-regional power, has heavy military presence in the region, including in the Persian Gulf, and US warships routinely sail in the waters. But the US military also ratchets up tensions in the region by occasionally alleging that its vessels come under “harassment” by Iranian patrol boats in the area.
In November last year, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) said that many international vessels pass through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz on a daily basis without trouble but that it is only the US that makes allegations of trouble at sea.
Iran has said it will confront any trespassing vessels.
In January 2016, Iranian forces arrested the crew members of two US patrol boats that had trespassed on Iranian territorial waters. The American crew members, who admitted to entering territory not covered by the regime of passage, were released by Iran shortly after they were detained through diplomatic communication between the then-US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
But since the election in November 2016 of US President Donald Trump, who adopted a hostile rhetoric toward Iran, concern was raised that the US allegations of incidents at sea could trigger a conflict. As a candidate, Trump had said that he would order the US Navy to shoot Iranian boats “out of the water.”
The Thursday amendment only requires a feasibility study by the Pentagon to establish communications with Iran, and it was unclear what the chances were for such communications to actually be established. But the fact that it was passed unanimously may be taken as a sign of concern on the part of US Congressmen and their will to avoid potential military incidents with Iran at sea.
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