The Nimitz returned to sea the morning of 3 December 1997, heading back to the northern Arabian Gulf amid considerably reduced tensions. The crew had just enjoyed eight days in Jebel Ali, a sprawling commercial port facility approximately 30 miles south of Dubai. It was a badly needed break from routine, and the liberty was much better than expected.
Dubai had grown dramatically since my last visit six years earlier. The city must be one of the most successful examples of an Islamic society accommodating Western commercialism without the religious backlash and political turmoil seen elsewhere. World-class shoppers, revelers, and junketeers flock to Dubai in the winter months, and the city hosts an internationally renowned air show as well as professional golf and tennis tournaments. There are bars and night clubs in all the Western hotels, with only mild restrictions on alcohol consumption as compared to complete prohibition in Saudi Arabia, and Western rock-and-roll radio stations.
As the Nimitz returned to operations and the crew worked to get its rhythm back, a major diplomatic development was unfolding to the north. Teheran was making final preparations to host the biennial Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), perhaps the only event that brings the leaders of nearly every Islamic nation in the world to the same place at once. Indeed, 27 heads of state and 3 monarchs were to attend the 1997 OIC scheduled for 9-11 December. This was the first time since its 1979 revolution that Iran had hosted the OIC, and for Iran's newly elected president, Mohammad Khatami, it was a monumental opportunity to present Iran's "new face" to the world.
Since the revolution, Iran and its rigid theocratic leadership have been implacable enemies of the United States. But in May of last year, the relatively moderate Khatami was elected president in a landslide over his fiery conservative rival. Khatami represented a departure from previous postrevolution leaders. Scholar and cleric, he has studied extensively in the West and has a profound understanding of the origins and philosophical premises of Western liberal democracy.
The ministerial phase of the OIC began 6 December and involved setting the agenda and drafting the proposals for the formal session. About the same time, the Iranian Air Force began flying an exceptionally high number of combat air patrols throughout the nation. These patrols were operational missions and involved aircraft interrogating and, in some cases, visually identifying unknown air contacts over or near Iranian air space. The workhorse for this mission was the U.S.-made F-4 Phantom, which the Iranians base in large numbers at Bushehr and Bandar Abbas. On several occasions, F-4s ventured out to 12 nautical miles from the shoreline to identify unknown aircraft, many of which happened to be U.S. planes flying from the Nimitz or the George Washington . Although the heightened Iranian posture in no way was threatening or provocative, the combat air patrols were flown continuously and raised the chances of an inadvertent mishap between an Iranian and U.S. plane. The number of patrols the Iranians flew between 6-11 December was a testament to how important the OIC was to Tehran. The Iranian leadership was taking no chances at being embarrassed by a security lapse.
For President Khatami, the OIC was a critical juncture for Iran's future and presented his new government with important opportunities. It brought the international spotlight to Tehran for perhaps the first time since the revolution in which such attention wasn't focused on negative aspects. Also, the OIC was an ideal forum for Iran to improve bilateral relations with several nations that have kept their distance from Tehran since the revolution.
Further, the OIC provided Khatami a unique chance to put his conservative critics on the defensive. In the presence of the world's Islamic leaders and the media, Khatami could set forth his vision of a more responsible and benign Iran, while implicitly criticizing Iran's hard-line religious mullahs for perpetuating a power structure that is accountable neither to the people nor to rule of law and will forever keep Iran an outcast in the world community.
Ayatollah Ali Khameini opened the formal session of the OIC on 9 December with a blistering invective against the United States and the West, claiming their societies always will be enemies of Islam and should not be trusted. He also lashed out against Islamic nations that cooperate with the West, accusing them of "paving the road for their enemy."
A New Voice for Iran
President Khatami followed the Ayatollah and proceeded to charm Westerners as no postrevolution official had done before. In an almost conciliatory tone, he praised many of the accomplishments of Western nations and argued that Islamic countries needed to find ways to cooperate with the West, because their obligation to the Islamic faith must be accompanied by an equally important obligation to universal peace. Covered extensively in international press, Khatami's speech appeared in segments in the prime-time news hours of all the major Western broadcasting stations.
President Khatami gave a post-OIC press conference five days later, meeting with reporters from around the world for more than an hour. When asked whether Iran was ready to open a dialogue with the United States, the President seemed to indicate that Iran may be ready to consider cultural and academic exchanges with the United States, as "thinking" people can develop a fruitful and meaningful dialogue based on respect and understanding. Most U.S. politicians, he continued, are not "thinking" people and do not represent the "civilization of the great people of the United States."
This statement caught Americans by surprise. Khatami had taken the overture about as far as he could without generating an intense conservative backlash. As far as rapprochement with the United States is concerned, both sides understand that dialogue is a tool of policy, not a policy itself. Serious issues, such as Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism, need to be resolved before any normalization of relations can be achieved.
Reaching out to European nations is an easier domestic sell for Khatami, and may very well strengthen his position with the conservative mullahs. It also presents a difficult dilemma for the United States. Does Washington implicitly encourage a warming of Iranian-European ties in the hopes of enhancing the durability of a more responsible and moderate government in Tehran? How is that done without completely undermining the stated U.S. policy of isolating Iran as a rogue nation?
Finally, the political developments surrounding the OIC had a direct effect on U.S. naval operations in the Gulf. Ten years ago, Iran and Iraq were still at war and the United States was escorting merchant tankers through the Strait of Hormuz under Operation Earnest Will. Iran was suspicious of U.S. claims of neutrality, and the Iranian Navy, a somewhat undisciplined force, engaged U.S. ships on a few occasions with disastrous results for Iran. Today the Iranian Navy seems to have learned from those encounters and has sought to achieve significant technological improvements while creating a more disciplined, professional force. This, coupled with Khatami's election, has created an environment in the Gulf of cautious noninterference, rather than open enmity. The United States still monitors the Iranian Navy closely, and the two services are far from friendly, but the sense that conflict could break out at any moment has gone.
Iraq and UNSCOM: A Dialogue of Futility
After the Iraqi crisis was defused temporarily in late November, there was a renewed push to find a real diplomatic solution and get UNSCOM back on track to complete its mission. Richard Butler led a delegation of UNSCOM officials to Baghdad for discussions with Iraqi officials 12-15 December. After receiving briefs from UNSCOM officials, Mr. Butler held talks with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. The core issue was attaining unrestricted access to all sites, which Baghdad continued to deny, declaring dozens of sites—some as large as Central Park—off limits.
Once back in New York, Mr. Butler briefed the Security Council on 18 December, describing the results of his trip as a "mixed bag." Although some progress had been made on second-tier items regarding the tedious procedural work of disarmament, no breakthrough was achieved on the principal issue of access. The Iraqis refused to provide a complete list of the "presidential" sites—those that deal with first-order national security concerns—claiming such information would be used by the United States for targeting purposes.
The only clear thing was that the diplomatic process was going to drag on. The Christmas holiday period would delay any progress, and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began 29 December. Barring some egregious Iraqi act of defiance, it was unlikely any military action would be undertaken during this sensitive time. For the Nimitz and Task Force 50, this meant approximately six weeks of business as usual in the Gulf—enforcing the Southern No-Fly Zone, enforcing economic sanctions with maritime interdiction operations, and conducting limited bilateral exercises with some of the Gulf countries. The Nimitz would remain in the Gulf until 26 January or beyond.
As the holidays approached, morale was sagging. Nearly four months into the cruise, being away from family and friends at Christmas would be, for most, the hardest part of the deployment. It was dig-down-deep time. On Christmas Eve, the Nimitz was visited by the Chief of Naval Operations for a short overnight stay. Along with the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, the CNO addressed the Nimitz 's crew in the ship's hangar bay. He thanked them for their commitment, and the Master Chief led them in Christmas carols. Their visits went a long way in boosting the crew's spirits.
From 27 December until 1 January 1998, the Nimitz was back in Jebel Ali for a shorter port visit. We again enjoyed Dubai, although Ramadan curtailed some of the activity at night (no live music, more restrictive alcohol service), and no one was allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight hours. With January nearly upon us, the end seemed in sight for the first time. Give or take a few days, we only had a month left in the Gulf—we hoped.
Lieutenant Commander Bray serves as the assistant intelligence officer to Commander Carrier Group Seven in San Diego.