Iran has taken a new step today in aggression against Western shipping with a kind of state-sponsored piracy. The container ship Maersk Tigris, owned by a Danish company but “chartered” to a German-held corporation, was fired on and boarded by the Iranian navy. The Danish ship and her crew were taken to Iran. An American destroyer, the USS Farragut, has been ordered to intercept, but Iran has good reason to believe that it will pay no price for its piracy, and may even in fact benefit.
In March 2007, 15 British sailors and Marines in inflatable boats sent from the HMS Cornwall were captured by Iran during a routine inspection of shipping in Iraqi waters in the Persian Gulf. The seamen were held hostage for 13 days. The Britons were "blindfolded, their hands bound, and they were forced up against the wall," and faced "constant psychological pressure." Later, the British said they had been stripped and dressed in pajamas, slept in "stone cells" and were "interrogated" most nights. They were given a choice: admit they were in Iranian waters and be returned to the UK or face up to seven years in prison. The matter appeared to be resolved when the United States released an Iranian “diplomat” suspected of terrorism held in Iraq, though Britain (naturally) denies any connection.
But Iran was only learning from the lack of British resolve displayed three years earlier. In 2004, eight British sailors were held for three days after their boats strayed into Iranian waters. They were freed only after being blindfolded and interrogated, apparently enduring a mock execution in the desert, and forced to read apologies on Iranian TV. Iran paid no price at all for this outrage.
Contrast the British experience with Iran with that of President Reagan’s. In December 1986, Kuwait's government asked the Reagan administration to send the U.S. Navy to protect Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf against Iranian attacks. The Kuwaiti ships were re-registered under the U.S. flag. Iran shifted: generally refraining from attacking the ships directly, the Iranian navy chose to lay mines instead.
This didn’t deter the Administration. Over a two year period, after Iran damaged some US-flagged tankers and even the USS Samuel B. Roberts, President Reagan retaliated. He ordered the Navy to shell various Iranian oil drilling platforms, destroying them, as well as to escort all neutral and allied shipping to and from the Gulf. When Iran paid a sufficient price in its petroleum lifeblood, it stopped all attacks on the ships.
The current situation doesn’t simply raise the imperative for the President to use the US Navy for keeping the seas free. Lawful oceanic trading of all kinds is the lifeblood of the global economy. But Iran must be deterred from future state-sponsored piracy, lest we invite more of it, and further convince the adversary of our weakness.
Even the drowning deaths of 128 Americans on the torpedoed Lusitania, almost exactly 100 years ago this week, failed to convince President Woodrow Wilson of the need to proffer more than a protest note to the Kaiser’s Germany. Although the international outcry caused the Kaiser to temporarily stop Germany’s program of unrestricted submarine warfare, two years later Germany restarted its deadly U-boat campaign against all shipping near the British Isles. Hoping to starve Britain out of World War I, Germany felt no need, let alone moral compunction, to worry itself about American merchant losses.
In our present conflict with Iran, failing to respond properly to provocations only invites greater bloodshed down the line, as the provocations increase in tempo and outrageousness.
Christopher S. Carson holds a master’s in National Security Studies from Georgetown University.
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