Commentary Magazine


How to Talk to Iran

This morning, the New York Times reacted to Iran’s recent naval maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz. On Monday, U.S. officials reported that five Iranian speedboats threatened three Navy warships in international waters at the narrow entrance to the Persian Gulf on Sunday. The small boats, probably operated by the Revolutionary Guard, closed within two hundred yards of the American vessels, communicated a threat to destroy them, and dropped boxes into the water in an apparent attempt to disrupt free passage in the waterway. Abe Greenwald reported and discussed this troubling development in this forum yesterday.

The Times, predictably, saw Saturday’s hostile act as an opportunity to begin a dialogue with Tehran. “At a minimum, the administration should use this incident to engage Iran in formal talks on conduct in the strait,” the paper said in an editorial. Why? “It is not clear what game the Iranians were playing or even who was giving the orders. President Bush’s refusal to engage Iran diplomatically makes it even harder for American officials to deconstruct Iran’s motives and increases the risk of future miscalculation on both sides.”

The principal flaw in the Times’s argument is that Iran’s motives for its dangerous conduct are relevant. They are not. The fact that Iranians sought to disrupt traffic in the waterway carrying 40 percent of the world’s traded oil is all we need to know.

At this time different elements are threatening free passage on international waters. Nations—most notably Russia and China—are claiming vast stretches of sea as their own. Moreover, we are experiencing a resurgence of pirate attacks, which rose 10 percent in 2007, the first increase in three years. The United States can either let bandits, rogues, and autocrats take over the world’s oceans, seas, and straits, or we can maintain safe passage for all nations. It is as simple as that.

The Iranians, over the weekend, were picking a fight with a vastly superior force. Why would they do that? They were undoubtedly seeking to learn about the U.S. Navy’s tactical reactions. More important, they were testing American resolve. The proper response is not meekly seeking an audience with the mullahs, as the Times suggests. A better way to safeguard shipping is employ force. On Saturday, the Iranians turned tail when the commander of one of the American ships, the Hopper, was about to open fire on the attackers.

The White House, responding to the incident, issued a series of formulaic statements from President Bush, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and spokesman Gordon Johndroe, all characterizing the incident as “provocative.” The Iranians, I suspect, already know that. What they need to hear is this: “The United States, acting either in conjunction with others or alone, will use overwhelming force on the high seas and on bases onshore against any party threatening to stop or restrict free passage on the world’s waterways.” Forget the Times’s proposed dialogue. This is the best way to talk to Iran.