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CNO Calls for New Rules with Iranians, Russians to End Harassment at Sea

A screen shot of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy patrol boat from a video taken by the crew of USS Nitze. US Navy Image

A screen shot of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy patrol boat from a video taken by the crew of USS Nitze. US Navy Image

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Chief of Naval Operations called for a set of rules to guide at-sea interactions between the U.S. Navy and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, calling recent harassment from IRGCN small boats “not helpful.”

Adm. John Richardson said today at the Center for American Progress that close encounters at sea from both the Iranians and Russian ships and planes are “potentially destabilizing” and can only produce negative outcomes.

“The closer and closer you get with those sorts of things, the margin for error gets smaller, and human error can play a bigger and bigger role, so I think it’s very important that we eliminate this sort of activity where we can because nothing good can come from it,” he said.

Richardson stressed the need for “leader-to-leader dialogue” to resolve the situation – though the U.S. has no formal diplomatic relationship with Iran, and interactions with the Russians are limited to certain high-level positions.

“We’re working to sort of think our way through what are the possibilities there, both with the Iranians and also I would say with the Russians, who have exhibited this behavior as well, so that we can get up on the line and have a conversation,” Richardson said.
“We’ve got the Practices to Prevent Incidents at Sea with the Russians. That is a living agreement in place today and so it’s discussed annually with the Russians and kept relevant each time, and every time we get together we talk through these sorts of close encounters – and, again, stressing that they’re not helpful.”

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a very low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) April 12, 2016. US Navy Photo

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a very low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) April 12, 2016. US Navy Photo

Though the Russians have not followed that agreement, buzzing both U.S. Navy ships and Navy and U.S. Air Force planes – and no agreement with the Iranians exists – Richardson said a similar agreement with China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is a model of how the pact should work.

Mentioning aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis’s (CVN-74) recent deployment to the Indo-Pacific region, in which PLAN frigates and spy ships shadowed the Stennis Carrier Strike Group for most of the deployment, Richardson said that each encounter between an American and Chinese ship was “performed according to a rule set that had been established by this CUES effort, Code for Unplanned Encounters At Sea. So everyone comes up on the radio, establishes the rules for passage and then they execute them.”

The CNO repeatedly called CUES “very very useful” and said that during a visit to China this summer he found that many sailors on a PLAN aircraft carrier he visited had in fact interacted with American ships at sea.

“This is happening at sea, but they have this rule set that they abide by, both teams, and that’s been very very useful,” he said.
“Getting some kind of rule set like that, particularly with the Iranians, would also be helpful so we could have these frameworks for behavior that would guide us more towards useful types of encounters at sea rather than these close-aboard types of demonstrations that really don’t have any positive benefit.”

The People's Republic of China Chinese Navy multi-role frigate Hengshui (572) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale (DDG 106) transit in formation during Rim of the Pacific 2016 on July 28, 2016. US Navy photo.

The People’s Republic of China Chinese Navy multi-role frigate Hengshui (572) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale (DDG 106) transit in formation during Rim of the Pacific 2016 on July 28, 2016. US Navy photo.

Richardson tends to talk about actions that are helpful and harmful when it comes to working on strained relationships. When it comes to China – where day-to-day interactions at sea are professional and port calls help build cultural understanding, but aggressive behavior towards its neighbors has threatened regional security and puts the country politically at odds with the U.S. – Richardson said he hopes to continue “thoughtful engagement” with the country and include it in any regional security arrangement created to keep peace in the South China Sea.

“We’re there now and we’re going to remain there,” he said of the South China Sea.
“We will advocate and enhance those areas where (the U.S. and China) have common interests, and we’ll work towards resolutions where we have differences in a way that minimizes the chance of a miscalculation that could go quickly from a tactical type of a thing up to a strategic thing.”