Whether or not two U.S. small boats had strayed into Iranian waters around an Iranian-controlled island in the Persian Gulf, the temporary Iranian seizure of the two small boats and 10 sailors was a deliberate provocation. History shows it should not be dismissed either as a rogue action or hardline backlash against the Iran nuclear deal.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem determined to push forward with the Iran nuclear deal, despite the Iranian government’s ballistic missile tests in flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in international law. Because of the structure of the Iranian economy, providing Iran $100 billion or more in unfrozen assets is the equivalent of wiring such money directly into the bank account of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As I noted in July, that money in the IRGC’s hands will disproportionately endanger the U.S. Navy and American sailors. Meanwhile, both the Supreme Leader and the IRGC refuse to allow independent inspection on any military base, no matter that much of Iran’s work on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program occurred in IRGC facilities. Simply put, to move forward with the return of that money would both contravene the letter and spirit of the JCPOA.
That should not be the limit the U.S. response, however, when it comes to the seizure of U.S. personnel. At issue is the safety of other sailors, as the IRGC has a tendency to push until they experience push-back. Yesterday’s episode follows an April 2015 incident in which the IRGC briefly seized a ship it believed was U.S.-flagged. It suffered no consequence for its actions.
Red lines are defined in force, not in rhetoric. Perhaps it’s time to remember Ronald Reagan and Operation Praying Mantis. After the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iran-laid mine in the Persian Gulf, an incident which caused no deaths, Reagan ordered the U.S. Navy to retaliate by destroying guns and military equipment on an Iranian oil platform. In order to minimize loss of life, the U.S. Navy warned the occupants of the platform first. When the Iranian navy and air force tried to defend the platform, the U.S. navy engaged and, in what would become the largest surface naval battle since World War II, the U.S. Navy largely sank their Iranian counterparts.
During his State of the Union Address, President Obama declared, “No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.” Unfortunately, the Iranian seizure of American sailors suggests his words are so far empty. That the Iranians released the sailors should not be seen as a testament to Iran, any more than an arsonist having second thoughts and dumping water on a fire should completely erase the fact that he had started it.
The IRGC-Navy must be made aware that it will pay a price. U.S. officials should quietly warn that should it ever again touch a U.S. ship or sailor, the U.S. Navy will hold the entire facility from which the IRGC-Navy operated responsible. It might warn that facility first just as the Navy did under Reagan, but it should destroy its guns and military infrastructure just as the Navy did almost 28 years ago. To do so might seem extreme, but Operation Praying Mantis won decades of quiet and may very well have contributed to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s decision to end the Iran-Iraq War (which Iraq had started, but Iran had prolonged). It’s would be healthy for a new generation of IRGC commanders to learn the same lesson their predecessors did: To mess with any U.S. sailor or ship is to precipitate a cost too high for Iran to bear. To do nothing is an alternative that would not bring peace, but would instead embolden a regime to engage in even more outrageous, destructive, or lethal rogue behavior.