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Dire Straits

Iran’s navy plays a dangerous game.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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With regard to Iran, the same dynamic is in play. On almost every deployment over the last decade, American sailors have photographed Revolutionary Guardsmen on speedboats unfurling banners with slogans such as “America can’t do a damned thing” (the same slogan with which the IRGC presented the captured American drone in early December) as they buzz American ships. One intelligence officer said that on her previous deployment, an Iranian boat had gotten so close that an Iranian crewman had used a cell phone to photograph her. 

Rather than compel Iran to negotiate, Obama has convinced the Iranian leadership that the United States is on the ropes and that their defiance rather than compromise will win the day. Obama may see the withdrawal from Iraq as a campaign promise kept, but Iranian authorities label it a historic defeat for the United States.

Iranian authorities seek to transform the Persian Gulf into a Persian lake. It is in this context that Hossein Shariat-madari, who as editor of the Islamic Republic’s flagship Kayhan newspaper serves as the supreme leader’s voice, has referred to the island nation of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters, as a renegade Iranian province. As the West learned when Saddam made similar references to Kuwait, sometimes dictators mean what they say.

As the Iranian naval challenge grows, what should Obama do? The United States will soon have three aircraft carriers in the Fifth Fleet area of operation, but absent the willingness to lay down red lines, a show of force will not be enough. Constant Iranian probing with minimal response has convinced the IRGC that American ships are vulnerable. Iranian authorities do not believe they must defeat the U.S. Navy head-on; causing casualties while crippling a ship might be enough to achieve their goals. After all, if the IRGC believe that they not only served America a catastrophic defeat in Iraq, but are on the verge of doing so again in Afghanistan, then they will conclude that the quickest way to force a U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf is not to close the Strait of Hormuz, but rather to kill American sailors, directly or by proxy.

On board American vessels, there is general consensus that American restraint will end up costing lives. When an IRGC speedboat rams a U.S. vessel or smugglers on board a dhow down an American helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, Congress will hold hearings as in the aftermath of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, and the Pentagon will revise its rules of engagement in order to ensure that hostile vessels can no longer get within striking distance of American warships. The question is, why wait to act until American sailors come home in body bags? 

Should Obama—or any successor—wish to protect American lives and preserve peace, the best policy may be to communicate a no-nonsense red line and then use deadly force to impose it. The U.S. Navy, for example, might declare a one-mile exclusion zone around every American vessel. Smugglers would learn the lesson quickly. After all, they seek worldly profit, not premature entry to paradise. As for the Revolutionary Guards, if they have forgotten the lesson of Operation Praying Mantis, a refresher course may be in order.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, lectures on board aircraft carriers for the Naval Postgraduate School.

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