Commentary Magazine


Topic: Strait of Hormuz

New Pipelines Will Reduce Tehran’s Power

Every time Iran faces increased pressure from the West to terminate its nuclear program it responds with blood-curdling threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. As I have previously argued, while Iran’s threats need to be taken seriously, they should not stop us from effective action: While Iran could disrupt traffic in the strait primarily with mines and speedboats, it could not close this important waterway, and even its disruptions would be effectively ended by the U.S. Navy within a relatively short period of time.

The Financial Times notes this morning that there is further cause not to be overly afraid of Iranian retaliation against the world’s oil supply: “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opened new pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane that Iran has repeatedly threatened to close, in a move that will reduce Tehran’s power over oil markets.” The Saudi pipeline goes to the Red Sea, the UAE pipeline to the Indian Ocean. Together, the FT notes, “The new links will more than double the total pipeline capacity bypassing the strait to 6.5m barrels a day, or about 40 percent of the 17m b/d that transits Hormuz.”

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Every time Iran faces increased pressure from the West to terminate its nuclear program it responds with blood-curdling threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. As I have previously argued, while Iran’s threats need to be taken seriously, they should not stop us from effective action: While Iran could disrupt traffic in the strait primarily with mines and speedboats, it could not close this important waterway, and even its disruptions would be effectively ended by the U.S. Navy within a relatively short period of time.

The Financial Times notes this morning that there is further cause not to be overly afraid of Iranian retaliation against the world’s oil supply: “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opened new pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane that Iran has repeatedly threatened to close, in a move that will reduce Tehran’s power over oil markets.” The Saudi pipeline goes to the Red Sea, the UAE pipeline to the Indian Ocean. Together, the FT notes, “The new links will more than double the total pipeline capacity bypassing the strait to 6.5m barrels a day, or about 40 percent of the 17m b/d that transits Hormuz.”

This is yet another reason why the West should not be intimidated by Tehran’s bluster, and why we should proceed with even more punishing sanctions in a last-ditch chance to bring a peaceful halt to the Iranian nuclear program, which, as the chief of Britain’s MI6 warned recently, could result in the production of actual nuclear weapons by 2014.

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Iran Would Lose if They Close Hormuz

The Washington Post is right to note that Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for possible new sanctions on its oil exports are in all probability empty posturing. Iran, after all, needs to send its own oil exports (for example to China) through the Strait. Closing it would hurt Tehran above all, while the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states could reroute some of their exports via pipelines.

There is also the fact that Iranian military action is unlikely to succeed–it would meet a devastating response from the U.S. Fifth Fleet and potentially from the armed forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In fact, the last time Iran tried this trick–that would be in the 1980s–it lost a “tanker war” against the United States. Tehran has certainly developed some fresh capabilities since, especially in terms of mines, cruise missiles, and speed boats–including probably suicide boats. All of that would make Iran a serious nuisance and might allow the Iranians to close the Strait temporarily. But there is little doubt that the Iranians
ultimately would come out on the losing end of any ensuing conflict. Moreover, by initiating military action, they would provide the U.S. just the excuse we need to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations.

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The Washington Post is right to note that Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for possible new sanctions on its oil exports are in all probability empty posturing. Iran, after all, needs to send its own oil exports (for example to China) through the Strait. Closing it would hurt Tehran above all, while the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states could reroute some of their exports via pipelines.

There is also the fact that Iranian military action is unlikely to succeed–it would meet a devastating response from the U.S. Fifth Fleet and potentially from the armed forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In fact, the last time Iran tried this trick–that would be in the 1980s–it lost a “tanker war” against the United States. Tehran has certainly developed some fresh capabilities since, especially in terms of mines, cruise missiles, and speed boats–including probably suicide boats. All of that would make Iran a serious nuisance and might allow the Iranians to close the Strait temporarily. But there is little doubt that the Iranians
ultimately would come out on the losing end of any ensuing conflict. Moreover, by initiating military action, they would provide the U.S. just the excuse we need to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations.

In sum, Iran would be acting suicidally if it tried to close the Strait. That doesn’t mean that such action is out of the question; the Iranian Revolution has often harnessed suicidal impulses. But it is unlikely and should not deter the Europeans from proceeding with their plans to embargo Iranian oil.

 

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Iran: Calculus Changing for the “Force Option”?

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

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Sanctions: A Hole Big Enough to Drive Anything Through

Many in the West think of sanctions on Iran as potentially involving a naval embargo — imposed in the Persian Gulf — or cargo inspections at sea. For a lot of people, there’s a mental picture of naval action in or near the Strait of Hormuz provoking an Iranian backlash against world shipping. But that image is largely outdated. From a much broader geographic perspective, the sanctions on Iran are porous to an absurd degree: a fact nicely demonstrated by a cargo-transit path emerging this month, which features America’s NATO ally Turkey.

I’ve written here and here about the options afforded Iran by its new continuous rail link with Turkey and Pakistan. Today, Aug. 12, is the day announced by the three nations’ railway officials for the freight line’s first commercial run.

There can be no pretense now that it’s possible to enforce sanctions in the absence of Turkey’s cooperation. The newly capable cargo-transit option through Turkey changes everything about the problem for the West’s would-be enforcers. Turkey’s ports are wide open and will remain so. There is no will within NATO to do more than complain gently to this increasingly troublesome ally. Turkey also has robust and growing trade with every nation that might act as a waypoint for sanctioned shipments to Iran. Brazil, meanwhile — Turkey’s partner in brokering a nuclear deal with Iran — has ramped up trade dramatically in the last year with North Korea. These factors make it easier to hide sanctioned shipments among the unremarkable ones.

Iran’s long borders and multiple trade corridors were always going to make enforcing commercial sanctions a very difficult proposition, even with the cooperation of nations like Russia, China, and Turkey. We don’t have that cooperation, however. There is no way to clamp down on Russian gasoline shipments to Iran (which may well go across the Caspian Sea, outside our naval reach). We would assuredly try to intercept prohibited weapons or nuclear-related cargo heading by ship to Bandar Abbas — but there is no longer a logistic need to ship them through the Persian Gulf, nor does refined gasoline have to take that route. It doesn’t matter which route is cheaper; what matters is that Iran has options we can’t close off.

One counterproductive feature of the sanctions on Iran is that they amplify the reasons for all the Asian actors in this drama to leverage each other. The Turks would be happy to gain influence over Iranian strategy with their growing role in Tehran’s access to global trade. Naturally, Iran doesn’t want to be that dependent on Turkey and will probably seek transit alternatives with Pakistan and the other Persian Gulf nations. China will shape its own opportunities from that Iranian outreach. Similar calculations enliven the strategic debate in every capital in the region. Obama’s unenforceable sanctions won’t have their intended effect, but their unintended effects are likely to reverberate for decades. Such are the consequences of using soft power for soft power’s sake.

Many in the West think of sanctions on Iran as potentially involving a naval embargo — imposed in the Persian Gulf — or cargo inspections at sea. For a lot of people, there’s a mental picture of naval action in or near the Strait of Hormuz provoking an Iranian backlash against world shipping. But that image is largely outdated. From a much broader geographic perspective, the sanctions on Iran are porous to an absurd degree: a fact nicely demonstrated by a cargo-transit path emerging this month, which features America’s NATO ally Turkey.

I’ve written here and here about the options afforded Iran by its new continuous rail link with Turkey and Pakistan. Today, Aug. 12, is the day announced by the three nations’ railway officials for the freight line’s first commercial run.

There can be no pretense now that it’s possible to enforce sanctions in the absence of Turkey’s cooperation. The newly capable cargo-transit option through Turkey changes everything about the problem for the West’s would-be enforcers. Turkey’s ports are wide open and will remain so. There is no will within NATO to do more than complain gently to this increasingly troublesome ally. Turkey also has robust and growing trade with every nation that might act as a waypoint for sanctioned shipments to Iran. Brazil, meanwhile — Turkey’s partner in brokering a nuclear deal with Iran — has ramped up trade dramatically in the last year with North Korea. These factors make it easier to hide sanctioned shipments among the unremarkable ones.

Iran’s long borders and multiple trade corridors were always going to make enforcing commercial sanctions a very difficult proposition, even with the cooperation of nations like Russia, China, and Turkey. We don’t have that cooperation, however. There is no way to clamp down on Russian gasoline shipments to Iran (which may well go across the Caspian Sea, outside our naval reach). We would assuredly try to intercept prohibited weapons or nuclear-related cargo heading by ship to Bandar Abbas — but there is no longer a logistic need to ship them through the Persian Gulf, nor does refined gasoline have to take that route. It doesn’t matter which route is cheaper; what matters is that Iran has options we can’t close off.

One counterproductive feature of the sanctions on Iran is that they amplify the reasons for all the Asian actors in this drama to leverage each other. The Turks would be happy to gain influence over Iranian strategy with their growing role in Tehran’s access to global trade. Naturally, Iran doesn’t want to be that dependent on Turkey and will probably seek transit alternatives with Pakistan and the other Persian Gulf nations. China will shape its own opportunities from that Iranian outreach. Similar calculations enliven the strategic debate in every capital in the region. Obama’s unenforceable sanctions won’t have their intended effect, but their unintended effects are likely to reverberate for decades. Such are the consequences of using soft power for soft power’s sake.

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Sanctions on Iran: A Tale of Two Narratives

In a session with journalists at the White House last week, President Obama reportedly “made the case that his Iran policy is working.” He also hedged his bets by acknowledging that the “Iranians may be impervious to sanctions.” Friendly journalists being a quiescent filter, the Obama narrative comes through quite well: our president, earnest and competent, is doggedly wielding every tool in his toolbox. He sees some progress — reportedly in the form of “rumblings” that sanctions are prodding Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions — but he recognizes the recalcitrant character of the Iranian leadership. He’s no fool, but this is, after all, a big problem.

That’s one narrative. It’s not a narrative about what Iran wants or is going to get, or what kind of threat that might pose to the Middle East or the U.S. It’s a narrative about what Obama is doing and how he sees the problem. We can call this one the Narrative of Obama.

The other narrative running in parallel with it is what we might call the Narrative of Events. Its elements are brought to our attention primarily by nontraditional media. The Obama administration simply ignores them in formulating its media themes, focusing instead on what Obama is doing and what he might have to do. Three developments in particular have cropped up in the last week.

One is the confirmation by IAEA inspectors that Iran has begun enriching uranium more efficiently. It’s a technical point, but it shortens the timeline to a weapon. As the Institute for Science and International Security observes, the procedure Iran has inaugurated mirrors the steps to a nuclear weapon outlined in the A.Q. Khan plans recovered from Libya. The Khan method essentially allows Iran to squeeze the most medium-enriched uranium possible from a given amount of low-enriched uranium, accelerating its progress toward the high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb. As the Reuters report notes, analysts say Iran “could advance to weapons-grade level in months.”

The other developments are interrelated and concern the economic sanctions themselves. One is the extent to which China — along with Turkey, India, and Russia — is stepping into the void created by tightened Western sanctions. This article from the new-right journal Il Foglio (available only in Italian) summarizes a number of mutually reinforcing factors, from Iran’s significance in China’s petroleum strategy to the dramatic increase in trade between the two countries and India’s determination not to be sidelined. According to Il Foglio, Turkey has proposed that Iran use major Turkish ports — rather than Dubai — as hubs for its foreign business. As I wrote in July, the rail lines are in place to make this a reality, allowing Iran to simply bypass the Strait of Hormuz for much of its trade.

Worrying about the danger it might create to inspect cargo ships in the Persian Gulf may soon be an outdated concern. Meanwhile, the third development reported in the last week is South Korea’s dilemma over the sanctions. This editorial reflects the significant concerns in Seoul about oil imports and the impact on medium-size businesses; Il Foglio points out, moreover, that if South Korea cooperates fully on sanctions, it will be abandoning one of its fastest-growing foreign markets to China. South Korean enthusiasm for effective cooperation is by no means assured.

Indeed, we are reaching the point at which it’s just as likely that patterns of trade and regional power will shift as it is that nations will continue to respond reflexively to American requests. Rick’s piece today is a timely reminder that the Narrative of Obama is an especially verbose one. It is also increasingly divorced from the Narrative of Events.

In a session with journalists at the White House last week, President Obama reportedly “made the case that his Iran policy is working.” He also hedged his bets by acknowledging that the “Iranians may be impervious to sanctions.” Friendly journalists being a quiescent filter, the Obama narrative comes through quite well: our president, earnest and competent, is doggedly wielding every tool in his toolbox. He sees some progress — reportedly in the form of “rumblings” that sanctions are prodding Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions — but he recognizes the recalcitrant character of the Iranian leadership. He’s no fool, but this is, after all, a big problem.

That’s one narrative. It’s not a narrative about what Iran wants or is going to get, or what kind of threat that might pose to the Middle East or the U.S. It’s a narrative about what Obama is doing and how he sees the problem. We can call this one the Narrative of Obama.

The other narrative running in parallel with it is what we might call the Narrative of Events. Its elements are brought to our attention primarily by nontraditional media. The Obama administration simply ignores them in formulating its media themes, focusing instead on what Obama is doing and what he might have to do. Three developments in particular have cropped up in the last week.

One is the confirmation by IAEA inspectors that Iran has begun enriching uranium more efficiently. It’s a technical point, but it shortens the timeline to a weapon. As the Institute for Science and International Security observes, the procedure Iran has inaugurated mirrors the steps to a nuclear weapon outlined in the A.Q. Khan plans recovered from Libya. The Khan method essentially allows Iran to squeeze the most medium-enriched uranium possible from a given amount of low-enriched uranium, accelerating its progress toward the high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb. As the Reuters report notes, analysts say Iran “could advance to weapons-grade level in months.”

The other developments are interrelated and concern the economic sanctions themselves. One is the extent to which China — along with Turkey, India, and Russia — is stepping into the void created by tightened Western sanctions. This article from the new-right journal Il Foglio (available only in Italian) summarizes a number of mutually reinforcing factors, from Iran’s significance in China’s petroleum strategy to the dramatic increase in trade between the two countries and India’s determination not to be sidelined. According to Il Foglio, Turkey has proposed that Iran use major Turkish ports — rather than Dubai — as hubs for its foreign business. As I wrote in July, the rail lines are in place to make this a reality, allowing Iran to simply bypass the Strait of Hormuz for much of its trade.

Worrying about the danger it might create to inspect cargo ships in the Persian Gulf may soon be an outdated concern. Meanwhile, the third development reported in the last week is South Korea’s dilemma over the sanctions. This editorial reflects the significant concerns in Seoul about oil imports and the impact on medium-size businesses; Il Foglio points out, moreover, that if South Korea cooperates fully on sanctions, it will be abandoning one of its fastest-growing foreign markets to China. South Korean enthusiasm for effective cooperation is by no means assured.

Indeed, we are reaching the point at which it’s just as likely that patterns of trade and regional power will shift as it is that nations will continue to respond reflexively to American requests. Rick’s piece today is a timely reminder that the Narrative of Obama is an especially verbose one. It is also increasingly divorced from the Narrative of Events.

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Flotilla Thriller

This summer promises events that will thoroughly eclipse the diplomatic flurry over the recent Gaza flotilla. What few would have expected is the maritime character of the drama to which we have to look forward. And in a manner reminiscent of some seemingly minor operational decisions during the Cold War, Obama’s response to the challenge will be the most important security signal sent by his administration to date.

The distant drumbeat of the impending climax has been sounding for some time; Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened shipping in, respectively, the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Lebanon and Israel, near the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Hezbollah’s most recent threat was issued in May, shortly before the deadly flotilla incident. Both Iran and Hezbollah are actively preparing to make good on their threats. This is not a theoretical menace. A complacent dismissal of their activities would be very dangerous.

Moreover, they are about to get help from — and take direct advantage of — the chaotic maritime situation brewing with the follow-on flotillas now in planning. Avram Rimon at Examiner.com had a good summary of them this weekend: they include a Gaza flotilla sponsored by German Jews; a counter-flotilla of Israelis hoping to bring aid to Cyprus, the Turkish Kurds, and Armenia (the latter under a Turkish blockade for more than 16 years); the Turkish flotilla for which Tayyip Erdogan has promised his own presence and a naval escort; and the flotilla being mounted by Iran, which is scheduled to leave Iran for Gaza on June 18.

The U.S. can do one of two things about these proliferating flotillas. We can organize NATO overtly to monitor and control eruptions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or we can simply leave it all for Israel to handle. Doing the latter will guarantee the early involvement of Hezbollah and Hamas in enlarging the scope of this maritime challenge. A hands-off approach by the Western nations makes it more likely that the terrorists, along with Iran and Turkey, will seek to precipitate crises — which may involve innocent commercial shipping — and press situational advantages. On the other hand, a declaration that the U.S. and NATO will prevent destabilizing eruptions, accompanied by obvious readiness to impose order if necessary, would be a salutary and effective signal. None of this need be done in a bellicose manner: quiet but unyielding is the appropriate demeanor.

Turkey’s involvement in the recent flotilla should already have resulted in a moment of reckoning with its NATO allies, if only behind closed doors. The West’s lackadaisical approach to its core alliance is on borrowed time. If the impending parade of flotillas produces only disorganized posturing from NATO, while allowing Israel’s enemies to create havoc at sea and score propaganda points against Israel, the next challenge is likely to emerge almost automatically in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened to begin stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz if the inspection clause of the June 9 UN sanctions is actually applied against Iran-bound cargo. Tehran’s willingness to carry through on this will depend on the U.S. posture, which governs what the Iranians think they can get away with.

A strong stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is the lowest-cost, highest-payoff method of deterring Iran from the outset. Maintaining stability at sea and control of the world’s key chokepoints is an American naval task so basic we rarely think about it, but the impact from breaches of that order is immediate and far-reaching. Doing nothing is courting crisis; we should be working to head this one off at the pass. That approach would be far less costly than reacting to a series of crises.

This summer promises events that will thoroughly eclipse the diplomatic flurry over the recent Gaza flotilla. What few would have expected is the maritime character of the drama to which we have to look forward. And in a manner reminiscent of some seemingly minor operational decisions during the Cold War, Obama’s response to the challenge will be the most important security signal sent by his administration to date.

The distant drumbeat of the impending climax has been sounding for some time; Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened shipping in, respectively, the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Lebanon and Israel, near the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Hezbollah’s most recent threat was issued in May, shortly before the deadly flotilla incident. Both Iran and Hezbollah are actively preparing to make good on their threats. This is not a theoretical menace. A complacent dismissal of their activities would be very dangerous.

Moreover, they are about to get help from — and take direct advantage of — the chaotic maritime situation brewing with the follow-on flotillas now in planning. Avram Rimon at Examiner.com had a good summary of them this weekend: they include a Gaza flotilla sponsored by German Jews; a counter-flotilla of Israelis hoping to bring aid to Cyprus, the Turkish Kurds, and Armenia (the latter under a Turkish blockade for more than 16 years); the Turkish flotilla for which Tayyip Erdogan has promised his own presence and a naval escort; and the flotilla being mounted by Iran, which is scheduled to leave Iran for Gaza on June 18.

The U.S. can do one of two things about these proliferating flotillas. We can organize NATO overtly to monitor and control eruptions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or we can simply leave it all for Israel to handle. Doing the latter will guarantee the early involvement of Hezbollah and Hamas in enlarging the scope of this maritime challenge. A hands-off approach by the Western nations makes it more likely that the terrorists, along with Iran and Turkey, will seek to precipitate crises — which may involve innocent commercial shipping — and press situational advantages. On the other hand, a declaration that the U.S. and NATO will prevent destabilizing eruptions, accompanied by obvious readiness to impose order if necessary, would be a salutary and effective signal. None of this need be done in a bellicose manner: quiet but unyielding is the appropriate demeanor.

Turkey’s involvement in the recent flotilla should already have resulted in a moment of reckoning with its NATO allies, if only behind closed doors. The West’s lackadaisical approach to its core alliance is on borrowed time. If the impending parade of flotillas produces only disorganized posturing from NATO, while allowing Israel’s enemies to create havoc at sea and score propaganda points against Israel, the next challenge is likely to emerge almost automatically in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened to begin stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz if the inspection clause of the June 9 UN sanctions is actually applied against Iran-bound cargo. Tehran’s willingness to carry through on this will depend on the U.S. posture, which governs what the Iranians think they can get away with.

A strong stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is the lowest-cost, highest-payoff method of deterring Iran from the outset. Maintaining stability at sea and control of the world’s key chokepoints is an American naval task so basic we rarely think about it, but the impact from breaches of that order is immediate and far-reaching. Doing nothing is courting crisis; we should be working to head this one off at the pass. That approach would be far less costly than reacting to a series of crises.

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A New Sheriff in the Strait

In the flurry of mildly interesting disclosures from the Iranian military exercise this week, one is likely to be overlooked. Iranian state media report that on Friday, April 23, the Revolutionary Guard’s naval arm stopped two ships for inspection in the Strait of Hormuz. The ships, according to Iran’s Press TV, were French and Italian. The photo accompanying the story depicts a Kaman-class guided-missile patrol boat on which the boxy, Chinese-designed C802 anti-ship-missile launchers can be seen amidships. The stated purpose of the inspections was to verify “environmental compliance.”

The names of the foreign ships were not provided; sketchy details make it difficult to be certain exactly where in the strait they were stopped. But European ships — even private yachts — rarely venture outside the recognized navigation corridors in the Strait of Hormuz. If this news report is valid, it almost certainly means that Iran detained ships that were transiting those corridors.

That, as our vice president might say, is a big effing deal. That’s not because Iran has committed an act of war by intercepting these ships, as some in the blogosphere are speculating. The intercepts were not acts of war. The purpose of verifying environmental compliance is one Iran can theoretically invoke on the basis of its maritime claims lodged with the UN in 1993. Ironically, however, Iran has never signed the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), the instrument by which the terms of its claims are defined. Many nations, of course, have yet to either sign or ratify UNCLOS, America being among them. In the meantime, world shipping has operated in the Strait of Hormuz for decades on the basis of UNCLOS’s definition of “transit passage,” which has customarily immunized ships in routine transit through straits against random intercept by the littoral navies (e.g., Iran’s or Oman’s).

Iran would be breaking with that custom by stopping ships for inspection in the recognized transit corridors. But this venue for a newly assertive Iranian profile is chosen well: stopping foreign ships that are conducting transit passage is uncollegial and inconvenient for commerce, but it is not clearly in breach of international law.

What it is, however, is an incipient challenge to the maritime regime enforced by the U.S., which includes the quiescent transit-passage custom on which global commerce relies. Mariners take care to observe the law as it is written, regardless of their nationality or national position on UNCLOS; but the guarantee of their unhindered passage isn’t international law, it’s the U.S. Navy. Demonstrations of force are required only rarely. Reagan put down revolutionary Iran’s only serious challenge to international maritime order back in 1988, in the final months of the Iran-Iraq War. Since then, Iran has refrained from unilateral action against shipping in the recognized transit corridors of the strait.

It’s ingenious to use environmental inspection as a pretext for establishing a new regime of unilateral Iranian prerogative. Iran is probing the U.S. and the West with this move. Fortunately, for the time being, diplomacy is the ideal tool for making it clear to Iran that the U.S. won’t tolerate capricious interference with shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. This initiative of Tehran’s must be nipped in the bud promptly, however. It can only escalate — and without pushback, it will.

In the flurry of mildly interesting disclosures from the Iranian military exercise this week, one is likely to be overlooked. Iranian state media report that on Friday, April 23, the Revolutionary Guard’s naval arm stopped two ships for inspection in the Strait of Hormuz. The ships, according to Iran’s Press TV, were French and Italian. The photo accompanying the story depicts a Kaman-class guided-missile patrol boat on which the boxy, Chinese-designed C802 anti-ship-missile launchers can be seen amidships. The stated purpose of the inspections was to verify “environmental compliance.”

The names of the foreign ships were not provided; sketchy details make it difficult to be certain exactly where in the strait they were stopped. But European ships — even private yachts — rarely venture outside the recognized navigation corridors in the Strait of Hormuz. If this news report is valid, it almost certainly means that Iran detained ships that were transiting those corridors.

That, as our vice president might say, is a big effing deal. That’s not because Iran has committed an act of war by intercepting these ships, as some in the blogosphere are speculating. The intercepts were not acts of war. The purpose of verifying environmental compliance is one Iran can theoretically invoke on the basis of its maritime claims lodged with the UN in 1993. Ironically, however, Iran has never signed the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), the instrument by which the terms of its claims are defined. Many nations, of course, have yet to either sign or ratify UNCLOS, America being among them. In the meantime, world shipping has operated in the Strait of Hormuz for decades on the basis of UNCLOS’s definition of “transit passage,” which has customarily immunized ships in routine transit through straits against random intercept by the littoral navies (e.g., Iran’s or Oman’s).

Iran would be breaking with that custom by stopping ships for inspection in the recognized transit corridors. But this venue for a newly assertive Iranian profile is chosen well: stopping foreign ships that are conducting transit passage is uncollegial and inconvenient for commerce, but it is not clearly in breach of international law.

What it is, however, is an incipient challenge to the maritime regime enforced by the U.S., which includes the quiescent transit-passage custom on which global commerce relies. Mariners take care to observe the law as it is written, regardless of their nationality or national position on UNCLOS; but the guarantee of their unhindered passage isn’t international law, it’s the U.S. Navy. Demonstrations of force are required only rarely. Reagan put down revolutionary Iran’s only serious challenge to international maritime order back in 1988, in the final months of the Iran-Iraq War. Since then, Iran has refrained from unilateral action against shipping in the recognized transit corridors of the strait.

It’s ingenious to use environmental inspection as a pretext for establishing a new regime of unilateral Iranian prerogative. Iran is probing the U.S. and the West with this move. Fortunately, for the time being, diplomacy is the ideal tool for making it clear to Iran that the U.S. won’t tolerate capricious interference with shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. This initiative of Tehran’s must be nipped in the bud promptly, however. It can only escalate — and without pushback, it will.

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The Real Threat to Middle East Peace

David Ignatius’s account of a war game involving the United States, Israel, the Europeans, and Iran (and Gary Sick’s addendum) is a good guide to how the struggle over the Iranian nuclear program might play out:

The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence. The Iranian team wound up with Russia and China as its diplomatic protectors. And the Israeli team ended in a sharp break with Washington.

Let me try to flesh out what the “sharp break with Washington” might consist of.

It’s clear at this point that the Obama administration has reconciled itself to a nuclear Iran and even, I think, convinced itself that this won’t be such a bad thing. After all, China opened up to the West after it went nuclear. We dealt with the Russians after they went nuclear. The Indians and Pakistanis haven’t nuked each other, despite Kashmir and all the terrorism. Neither has Israel used nukes, for that matter.

In fact, Iran going nuclear might help remove the chip on the shoulder of the Islamic Revolutionaries by making them feel as important as they hope to be — because as we all know from our Iran experts, there’s an important psychological dimension to all of this; one must understand the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. The nuclear program will really be a socialization program, in other words. It is how Iran will be broken to the saddle of the international system.

So, if you’ve reconciled yourself to all of that, the next step is ensuring the smooth transition of the Middle East into a region with two, not one, nuclear powers. This is where the Israelis, and Israeli power, become a huge problem. Such a problem, I think, that the real challenge for Obama over the next year isn’t going to be dealing with the Iranians, it’s going to be deterring the Israelis.

The Iranians probably won’t test a nuke, so there will be no above-the-fold three-alarm headline when Americans suddenly will be forced to confront the fecklessness of their president. There will be no Soviet-tanks-rolling-into-Afghanistan moment. There will be ambiguity, enough of it for Obama to be able to maintain for a long time that we just don’t know whether Iran has gone nuclear because they’re still considering our latest offer to build reactors for them on the Galapagos Islands and they’ve requested another three weeks for deliberations.

The president is perfectly capable of muddling through the nuclearization of Iran. What would create huge problems is an Israeli strike. Obama would have to use the military to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. The “Arab street,” which he has worked so hard to befriend, would burn him in effigy from Algiers to Islamabad. The Zionist-Crusader axis would be denounced around the world. “Optics” are very important to Obama, quite more so than substance, and he would look as though he had completely lost control of the Middle East (which would be true). And once again, the world would descend into the kind of brutal struggle for power that is not supposed to happen during the Obama Era.

Yes, this is the real problem — the Israelis and their dangerous, rigid feelings of insecurity. So in my estimation, expect to see a major effort by the administration to keep the Israelis, not the Iranians, in check. It’s the logical thing to do.

David Ignatius’s account of a war game involving the United States, Israel, the Europeans, and Iran (and Gary Sick’s addendum) is a good guide to how the struggle over the Iranian nuclear program might play out:

The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence. The Iranian team wound up with Russia and China as its diplomatic protectors. And the Israeli team ended in a sharp break with Washington.

Let me try to flesh out what the “sharp break with Washington” might consist of.

It’s clear at this point that the Obama administration has reconciled itself to a nuclear Iran and even, I think, convinced itself that this won’t be such a bad thing. After all, China opened up to the West after it went nuclear. We dealt with the Russians after they went nuclear. The Indians and Pakistanis haven’t nuked each other, despite Kashmir and all the terrorism. Neither has Israel used nukes, for that matter.

In fact, Iran going nuclear might help remove the chip on the shoulder of the Islamic Revolutionaries by making them feel as important as they hope to be — because as we all know from our Iran experts, there’s an important psychological dimension to all of this; one must understand the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. The nuclear program will really be a socialization program, in other words. It is how Iran will be broken to the saddle of the international system.

So, if you’ve reconciled yourself to all of that, the next step is ensuring the smooth transition of the Middle East into a region with two, not one, nuclear powers. This is where the Israelis, and Israeli power, become a huge problem. Such a problem, I think, that the real challenge for Obama over the next year isn’t going to be dealing with the Iranians, it’s going to be deterring the Israelis.

The Iranians probably won’t test a nuke, so there will be no above-the-fold three-alarm headline when Americans suddenly will be forced to confront the fecklessness of their president. There will be no Soviet-tanks-rolling-into-Afghanistan moment. There will be ambiguity, enough of it for Obama to be able to maintain for a long time that we just don’t know whether Iran has gone nuclear because they’re still considering our latest offer to build reactors for them on the Galapagos Islands and they’ve requested another three weeks for deliberations.

The president is perfectly capable of muddling through the nuclearization of Iran. What would create huge problems is an Israeli strike. Obama would have to use the military to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. The “Arab street,” which he has worked so hard to befriend, would burn him in effigy from Algiers to Islamabad. The Zionist-Crusader axis would be denounced around the world. “Optics” are very important to Obama, quite more so than substance, and he would look as though he had completely lost control of the Middle East (which would be true). And once again, the world would descend into the kind of brutal struggle for power that is not supposed to happen during the Obama Era.

Yes, this is the real problem — the Israelis and their dangerous, rigid feelings of insecurity. So in my estimation, expect to see a major effort by the administration to keep the Israelis, not the Iranians, in check. It’s the logical thing to do.

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What Iran Truly Fears

Yesterday, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that the “criminal regime” of Israel “would not dare attack Iran.” Why? “It knows that any attack on Iranian territories would prompt a fierce response.” Ahmadinejad also says he is not worried about the United States. Hostile talk, the fiery leader noted, is just campaign rhetoric “aimed at American domestic consumption as they need it in the upcoming presidential elections.”

Why are we hearing war talk from Tehran at this moment? After all, the United States is merely pursuing a peaceful course of action, pushing the Security Council to enact a third set of sanctions for Iran’s failure to stop the enrichment of uranium. Washington can count on Germany’s support, but it is meeting increasingly stiff resistance where it counts.

Russia, by giving the cold shoulder to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Moscow yesterday, signaled that it will not vote in favor of a new round of coercive measures. For its part, China hosted Americans and Iranians in Beijing in the last few days and ended up siding with the latter. Yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “We hope that the international community will intensify diplomatic efforts to break the deadlock for an early resumption of talks so that the issue will be solved in a comprehensive, lasting and proper manner.” Today, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, was more direct. “On the Iranian nuclear issue, China and Iran have a similar stance,” he crowed after meeting with his Chinese counterparts.

On Tuesday, the five veto-wielding members will meet in Berlin to discuss new sanctions, but there will be no satisfactory outcome, especially because Chinese and Russian diplomats are repeating their almost word-for-word calls for more useless talks. These cynical pleas for additional negotiations, which would give the mullahs more time to develop their weapons, show that the Iranians have now neutralized the United Nations. Even if the Security Council should come up with new sanctions in the months ahead, we can be sure that they will be totally ineffective.

So let’s start connecting the dots, if I may borrow a phrase from Gabriel Schoenfeld. The Iranians are not worried about Washington’s diplomatic initiatives. They must realize that the only thing that can stop their nuclear program at this moment is military action. That’s why Iranian fast boats challenged the U.S. Navy earlier this month in the Strait of Hormuz—to remind Washington and the international community of the price of war. And that’s why Ahmadinejad said that neither Israel nor the United States would attack. The Iranians, I believe, wish to prevent the one thing they cannot control and truly fear.

Yesterday, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that the “criminal regime” of Israel “would not dare attack Iran.” Why? “It knows that any attack on Iranian territories would prompt a fierce response.” Ahmadinejad also says he is not worried about the United States. Hostile talk, the fiery leader noted, is just campaign rhetoric “aimed at American domestic consumption as they need it in the upcoming presidential elections.”

Why are we hearing war talk from Tehran at this moment? After all, the United States is merely pursuing a peaceful course of action, pushing the Security Council to enact a third set of sanctions for Iran’s failure to stop the enrichment of uranium. Washington can count on Germany’s support, but it is meeting increasingly stiff resistance where it counts.

Russia, by giving the cold shoulder to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Moscow yesterday, signaled that it will not vote in favor of a new round of coercive measures. For its part, China hosted Americans and Iranians in Beijing in the last few days and ended up siding with the latter. Yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “We hope that the international community will intensify diplomatic efforts to break the deadlock for an early resumption of talks so that the issue will be solved in a comprehensive, lasting and proper manner.” Today, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, was more direct. “On the Iranian nuclear issue, China and Iran have a similar stance,” he crowed after meeting with his Chinese counterparts.

On Tuesday, the five veto-wielding members will meet in Berlin to discuss new sanctions, but there will be no satisfactory outcome, especially because Chinese and Russian diplomats are repeating their almost word-for-word calls for more useless talks. These cynical pleas for additional negotiations, which would give the mullahs more time to develop their weapons, show that the Iranians have now neutralized the United Nations. Even if the Security Council should come up with new sanctions in the months ahead, we can be sure that they will be totally ineffective.

So let’s start connecting the dots, if I may borrow a phrase from Gabriel Schoenfeld. The Iranians are not worried about Washington’s diplomatic initiatives. They must realize that the only thing that can stop their nuclear program at this moment is military action. That’s why Iranian fast boats challenged the U.S. Navy earlier this month in the Strait of Hormuz—to remind Washington and the international community of the price of war. And that’s why Ahmadinejad said that neither Israel nor the United States would attack. The Iranians, I believe, wish to prevent the one thing they cannot control and truly fear.

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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.

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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.

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Iranian Face-Off

On Sunday, five armed Iranian speedboats threatened three U.S. Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Before turning back, the Revolutionary Guard boats dropped white boxes in the path of one of the U.S. ships, and broadcast the bridge-to-bridge message, “I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes.” So, why aren’t today’s newspapers plastered with stories about five sunken terrorist boats in international waters?

In 2006, Revolutionary Guard commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said on Iranian television:

The Americans have many weaknesses. We have planned our strategy precisely on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. We did not see such spectacles in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman treated the terrorist provocation as if he were a municipal magistrate passing out a fine for a seatbelt infraction. In no uncertain terms he let the Iranians know that they had acted in a “reckless and dangerous” manner.

Last March when eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Marines from the HMS Cornwall giggled and praised their Revolutionary Guard captors, many Americans imagined that this low point for the great Royal Navy would look rather different with American sailors. Incidents such as Sunday’s give little reason for hope. We don’t know if the encounter was an aborted attack or not. But it points, yet again, to the fact that Tehran is not the rational player talk-advocates (like Mike Huckabee) suggest. Iran’s goal is escalation.

On Sunday, five armed Iranian speedboats threatened three U.S. Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Before turning back, the Revolutionary Guard boats dropped white boxes in the path of one of the U.S. ships, and broadcast the bridge-to-bridge message, “I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes.” So, why aren’t today’s newspapers plastered with stories about five sunken terrorist boats in international waters?

In 2006, Revolutionary Guard commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said on Iranian television:

The Americans have many weaknesses. We have planned our strategy precisely on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. We did not see such spectacles in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman treated the terrorist provocation as if he were a municipal magistrate passing out a fine for a seatbelt infraction. In no uncertain terms he let the Iranians know that they had acted in a “reckless and dangerous” manner.

Last March when eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Marines from the HMS Cornwall giggled and praised their Revolutionary Guard captors, many Americans imagined that this low point for the great Royal Navy would look rather different with American sailors. Incidents such as Sunday’s give little reason for hope. We don’t know if the encounter was an aborted attack or not. But it points, yet again, to the fact that Tehran is not the rational player talk-advocates (like Mike Huckabee) suggest. Iran’s goal is escalation.

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