The top US naval commander in the Middle East says contacts between the US and Iranian navies would be useful once Tehran stopped sponsoring violence inside Iraq.

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

In an interview, Adm Cosgriff told the FT that the US and Soviet navies had benefited from contacts during the Cold War. Asked whether similar contacts between the US and Iran navies would be useful, he said: “I think they would”.

Robert Gates, defence secretary, recently adopted a less rigid tone on talks with Iran than either the White House or Mr McCain by advocated opening new channels between the countries, but added that the US should try to gain more leverage before holding talks with Tehran.

Sitting in a Pentagon office last week during a visit back to Washington from his Bahrain headquarters, Adm Cosgriff explained how the 1972 “Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas” agreement between the US and USSR helped prevent incidents at sea from escalating into crises.

Adm Cosgriff, who has also served as director of the White House situation room, said the negotiations over the agreement 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 twenty years ago was “pretty routine”.

“The key takeaway is it created an opportunity for the two navies to talk,” said Adm Cosgriff. “And then that led to other things, visits and those sorts of things.”

Three former heads of Central Command, which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, have also expressed varied degrees of support for more interaction with Iran.

Retired general John Abizaid, who headed the command until March last year, told the FT that anything the US could do to “lessen the chances of unintended confrontation escalating out of control is good”.

“Keeping appropriate lines of communication open is part of sensible diplomacy,” said Gen Abizaid. “Nobody said we need to talk ‘nice’ but being able to talk with adversaries is useful even if the talk is tough.”

Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine general who led the command in the late 1990s, suggested that the US consider forming a ”Gulf Naval Co-ordination Center”, which would include Arab navies and allow bridge-to-bridge communications or communications through a monitoring centre. The US 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,” Gen Zinni told the FT.

Retired admiral William Fallon, who succeeded Gen Abizaid at Centcom until his retirement earlier this year, on Tuesday told CNN that the US needed to remain firm with Iran while at the same time demonstrating a “willingness and openness to engage in dialogue”.

Another senior military official said that after 30 years of strategy questions over Iran, the importance of “having a two-way exchange…can’t be overstated”.

An aide to Senator John Warner, who signed the 1972 agreement with the Soviets when he was Navy secretary, said the Virginia Republican believed such efforts [US-Iranian naval contacts] would only be successful if they were top-down from the highest levels of government to the navies as they were with the US/USSR.

One reason the former military commanders argue for more interaction with Iran is to reduce the possibility of an accidental confrontation that spirals out of control.

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

“It could have gone the other way,” says Adm Cosgriff. “The message I would want the Iranians to have taken away is that 20 US sailors have died at the hands of small boat attacks [including the 2000 USS Cole attack], and there is not a captain in the US navy … that does not know that.”

One problem, he says, is that while the Iranian navy responds to radio calls from US ships, the more aggressive Revolutionary Guard does not. He grapples with the question of whether the Revolutionary Guard navy is 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 centre because they have created the tone or the environment within which local commanders seem to think that they can operate this way.”

Adm Cosgriff laces his desire to have better naval relations with a dose of reality, saying the US cannot have a “normal relationship” with Iran while it ships lethal weapons to groups attacking US 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,” says Adm Cosgriff.

Adm Cosgriff worries about possible miscalculations, he dismisses the periodic reports that the US will attack Iran this year as an “urban legend”.

“I know on my side of the Gulf people have this unsettled feeling that there is going to be something like that,” says Adm Cosgriff.

“So every little thing now fits into this conspiracy. Like ‘there is 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.”

Email the reporter at Demetri.Sevastopulo@ft.com

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