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The World

U.S., Iranian warships do the Persian Gulf squeeze

The stakes are big and the waterway is small, so the two rivals stay in touch to help keep a lid on simmering tensions.

July 11, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS — Iran and the United States remain so far apart on so many issues that they refuse to talk about them.

But in the cramped sea routes of the Persian Gulf, U.S. and Iranian warship sailors and fighter pilots speak to each other daily.

They have to. They're practically jostling one another in courteous games of surveillance, counter-surveillance and geopolitical posturing.

"We are operating very close to their territorial waters in a very confined space with a tremendous amount of traffic, be it the small dhows, be it the supertankers going up to the oil platforms," said U.S. Navy Capt. Sterling Gilliam Jr., commander of air operations for this nuclear-powered supercarrier and its associated ships.

"The margin of error is smaller in that the space is more confined. That would be the case even if anyone was your ally, just because of the sheer small size of the Arabian Gulf," Gilliam said, using an alternative name for the body of water.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. warship: A photo caption accompanying an article in Wednesday's Section A about U.S. and Iranian warships in the Persian Gulf said a fighter jet was lifting off from the U.S. nuclear-powered carrier John C. Stennis. The plane, a French naval jet, was flying over the warship. The photo was taken in April, when the carrier was participating in exercises with a French carrier in the Indian Ocean.

Even mundane changes of direction require chitchat with Iranian counterparts. When sedate gulf winds fade to a whisper, for example, this 100,000-ton carrier whips up to the 25 knots required to hurl jets into flight from the 1,092-foot flight deck.

But first the vessel alerts nearby forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the organization's navy.

"We would do the standard international maritime measures," said Capt. Bradley Johanson, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier.

"We would call them on their radio and say, 'Sir, I just wanted to let you know that we're going to be turning to port and be coming to this course so that we're into the wind in support of our flight operation."

The Iranians respond professionally and courteously, Johanson said: " 'Thank you very much for the information. We will move off to the starboard position. We very much appreciate the heads-up.' "

Nearly half of the U.S. Navy's 277 warships are stationed close to Iran, alongside most of Tehran's estimated 140 naval surface ships and six submarines, according to GlobalSecurity.org. More than five dozen aircraft are aboard the Stennis, along with dozens more aboard the Nimitz, another U.S. aircraft carrier in the gulf.

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Multiple roles

Crew members on the Stennis say they are here to provide aircraft for peacekeeping and counterinsurgency missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

But few doubt they are also here to send a message to Iran, which the U.S. accuses of pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program and supporting anti-American militants from Lebanon to Afghanistan.

"My feeling here is we're here to show our resolve, and to protect our friends," said Cmdr. Marcus Hitchcock, the Stennis' executive officer.

A flotilla of nine U.S. warships steamed through the Strait of Hormuz two months after the United Nations Security Council passed the last round of sanctions against Iran for continuing with its uranium enrichment program and Iranians seized 15 British sailors and marines in disputed waters off Iraq.

Positioning two aircraft carrier groups in the gulf gives the United States the capability to operate 24 hours a day and potentially conduct about 180 daily bombing and surveillance operations over Iran.

It also means the United States may be deploying nuclear weapons, believed to be aboard some of the ships in the aircraft carrier groups, within 10 miles of Iran's shores.

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Big targets

But the aircraft carriers, each accompanied by four or five other ships, could become big targets for Iran in the event of a war.

"It's going to be very hard to defend U.S. ships against small ships and volleys of missiles in the confines of the Persian Gulf," said Joseph Cirincione, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

"This is not an ideal situation for the Navy."

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. lie barely beneath the surface of the delicate maritime protocol. Both Iran and the U.S. regularly dispatch spy planes to watch each other. A photograph of an Iranian T-12 reconnaissance plane is posted outside the intelligence office of the Stennis. "Image of the day," says the caption.

"We would take a picture of an Iranian navy warship to see if they've made any changes," said Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet. "They do it too. We pay attention and want to know where they are. Is their action routine or are they getting ready for an exercise?"

Each country accuses the other of bad behavior. Iran says the U.S. plays a disruptive role in the gulf and destabilizes the region. U.S. officials say the Iranians behave like bullies, sometimes getting on the radio to order Americans to leave what the Iranians claim as territorial waters.

Americans also complain that Iranians don't do enough to clear sea lanes before conducting missile tests in international waters and that their aircraft fly too close to U.S. planes.

"They're overt about it," Cosgriff said. "They're communicating."

Operating an aircraft carrier is a task that requires precision and stamina even in the most spacious waters.

Stumbling into a hot conflict with the Iranians remains a constant concern in the overcrowded gulf, where nearby oil wells glow orange in the steamy night, and wooden dhows, steel-hull freighters and warships navigate the waterway by day.

On the ship's computer maps, a thick black line delineates Iranian coastal waters from the rest of the gulf. Shades of gray mark the waters off Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allies of the United States. U.S. pilots are told to stay well away from Iranian airspace.

"We do worry about miscalculations," Cosgriff said. "That's one of the reasons we want to be transparent on the radio and be talking to them a lot."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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