Tehran is making lots of noise about closing the Strait of Hormuz, boasting that it would be “easier than drinking a glass of water,” according to Iran’s naval chief, and warning U.S. aircraft carriers to steer clear of the vital waterway. The Iranians have punctuated their threats with missile tests, naval maneuvers and other provocative acts. What if the president responded by explaining that closure of the Strait of Hormuz “would constitute an illegal interference with navigation of the sea,” by making it unambiguously clear to Iran’s leaders that “we will protect our ships, and if they threaten us, they’ll pay a price,” and by deploying and even using military force to ensure that Tehran had “no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior”?
As a matter of fact, the president has already responded to Iranian provocations in this manner. Of course, the president who did so was Ronald Reagan.
It happened in 1987-88, after Iran launched cruise missiles at ships in the Persian Gulf, attacked unarmed oil tankers, laid mines that destroyed cargo ships, harassed U.S. warships and aircraft deployed to ensure freedom of the seas, and deployed ship-killing missiles on its side of the Strait of Hormuz.
After an Iranian mine ripped through a U.S. warship, Reagan had enough and ordered a series of punishing military responses against Iranian naval assets all across the lower half of the Persian Gulf. While most Americans forget this war on the Gulf, Tehran doesn’t. On a single day in 1988, the U.S. crippled Iran’s navy: U.S. helicopters disabled and then captured an Iranian ship; U.S. warships set Iranian oil platforms ablaze; and the U.S. armada eliminated six Iranian warships, effectively turning Iran’s military into a land-only force. Even the New York Times called it “The right response to Khomeini.”
Today, Tehran is even more capable of wreaking havoc in and around the Strait of Hormuz. Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Security and International Studies has noted that “Iran has given modernization of its naval forces high priority,” acquiring sophisticated anti-ship missiles from China and Ukraine, submarines from Russia, high-speed attack boats from France and an arsenal of some 2,000 mines. In Cordesman’s view, Iran may have the “potential capability to close the Gulf until U.S. naval and air power could clear the mines and destroy the missile launchers and submarines.”
Although now may not be the time for Reaganesque military action against Iran’s navy, it’s certainly the time for Reaganesque words from this president. All we’ve heard so far in response to Iran’s threatened closure of the Strait of Hormuz is a brief but blunt warning from the U.S. Fifth Fleet that disruptions of the vital transit route “will not be tolerated.”
It’s time for the president to speak to this issue and to make clear that the security of the Strait of Hormuz is not a tactical matter for theater commanders to deal with, but rather a strategic interest of the United States—and as such a top priority for the commander-in-chief. As the Wall Street Journal advised last week, the president “should say plainly that any attempt to close or disrupt traffic through the strait would be considered an act of war that would be met with a military response.”
In other words, any mischief or interference by Iran’s military should draw an immediate military response from the U.S. Navy, and the White House should be prepared to use such a provocation as an opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to the Iranian navy—and perhaps to other nodes of the Iranian regime’s power.
The president doesn’t need to publicly define what that response will look like, but he needs to put Tehran on notice that it will not be permitted to toy with international shipping and global energy supplies.
The Persian Gulf is an American lake, and in order to ensure the security and flow of those energy supplies it must remain so. After all, those supplies represent a vital strategic interest for the United States. The only way some modicum of stability in and around the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf can be guaranteed is if Iran understands the seriousness of American resolve. That requires more than words. It also requires actions.
For example, if, as reports indicate, the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis left the Gulf to sail east, it or another carrier needs to return to the Gulf to make it clear to Tehran that the U.S. Navy can and will move at will through the Strait. Recall that an Iranian military official recently declared that “the enemy’s carrier” would not be allowed to return to the Persian Gulf. “I advise, recommend and warn them over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once,” a state-run press agency blustered. Tehran must be disabused of any notions that it can constrain U.S. freedom of action.
Of course, the issuance of a Reaganesque “Hormuz Doctrine” from President Obama seems unlikely. After all, Obama is the man who ignored his commanders and sounded a general retreat in Iraq, “led from behind” in Libya, and inexplicably and indefensibly averted his gaze and bit his tongue when the Iranian people tried to topple the tyrants of Tehran in 2009.
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