The Pirates of Tehran

If Iran wonít change its behavior, we should sink its navy.

Outlet: The New York Times
By
: Bret Stephens

Date: June 14, 2019

On April 14, 1988, the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, a frigate, hit an Iranian naval mine while sailing in the Persian Gulf. The explosion injured 10 of her crew and nearly sank the ship. Four days later, the U.S. Navy destroyed half the Iranian fleet in a matter of hours. Iran did not molest the Navy or international shipping for many years thereafter.

Now thatís changed. Iranís piratical regime is back yet again to its piratical ways.

Or so it seems, based on a detailed timeline of Thursdayís attackson two tankers in the Gulf of Oman provided by the U.S. Central Command, including a surveillance video of one of Iranís Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps patrol boats removing an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of one of the damaged tankers.

The Iranians categorically deny responsibility. And the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.

In this case, however, the evidence against Iran is compelling. CentComís account notes that ďa U.S. aircraft observed an IRGC Hendijan class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft (FAC/FIAC) in the vicinity of the M/T Altair,Ē one of the damaged tankers. The Iranian boats are familiar to the U.S. Navy after decades of observing them at close range. And staging deniable attacks that fall just below the threshold of open warfare on the U.S. is an Iranian specialty.

Trump might be a liar, but the U.S. military isnít. There are lingering questions about the types of munitions that hit the ships, and time should be given for a thorough investigation. But it would require a large dose of self-deception (or conspiracy theorizing) to pretend that Iran isnít the likely culprit, or that its actions donít represent a major escalation in the region.

The most likely explanation was offered by Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who suggested that Iranís purpose was ďto demonstrate that Trump is a Twitter Tiger.Ē

Itís not a bad guess. The Iranians know that vainglory and timidity often go hand in hand.

Trump went from apocalyptic to smitten with Kim Jong-un in a matter of weeks after concluding that the risks of a confrontation with North Korea just werenít worth it. Heís delivered similar mixed messages toward Tehran. Driving a crisis in the Middle East so that the U.S. president can ďsolveĒ it with a fresh nuclear deal on even easier terms than Obamaís would be a canny Iranian gambit.

Which brings us to the consequential question: Whatís the proper U.S. response?

It canít be the usual Trumpian cycle of bluster and concession. Neither can it be the liberal counsel of feckless condemnation followed by inaction. Firing on unarmed ships in international waters is a direct assault on the rules-based international order in which liberals claim to believe. To allow it to go unpunished isnít an option.

What is appropriate is a new set of rules ó with swift consequences if Iran chooses to break them. The Trump administration ought to declare new rules of engagement to allow the Navy to engage and destroy Iranian ships or fast boats that harass or threaten any ship, military or commercial, operating in international waters. If Tehran fails to comply, the U.S. should threaten to sink any Iranian naval ship that leaves port.

If after that Iran still fails to comply, we would be right to sink its navy, in port or at sea. The world cannot tolerate freelance Somali pirates. Much less should it tolerate a pirate state seeking to hold the global economy hostage through multiplying acts of economic terrorism.

Nobody wants a war with Iran. But not wanting a war does not mean remaining supine in the face of its outrages. We sank Iranís navy before. Tehran should be put on notice that we are prepared and able to do it again.