Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
A “whiff of grapeshot” is how English historian Thomas Carlyle described Napoleon’s method of stopping a Royalist riot during the French Revolution. Napoleon ordered his men to fire cannon loaded with “grapeshot,” shrapnel, directly into the mob, killing some and scattering the rest. The saying has lived on as a lesson in deterrence: decisive and brutal force used at the right time can avoid a more serious engagement with higher casualties.
The failure to learn this lesson about deterrence has compromised our now four-decades old conflict with Iran. The mullahcracy’s latest burst of braggadocios threats and empty boasts about “controlling” the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz is a good opportunity to display some old-school deterrent action.
We rich, comfortable moderns, of course, look on such brutal methods as relics of our savage past––barbarous behavior beneath our morally superior sensibilities. Don’t we live in the “international rules-based order,” where all agree that lethal force should be used only as a last resort, and that diplomacy and “engagement” should be the best way to resolve conflicts? Of course, the history of just the last century shows empirically that this is a pipe dream. In the real world our enemies and rivals live in, force isn’t an adjunct to diplomacy, but diplomacy is a “technical adjunct” to force, as Robert Conquest described the diplomacy of the Soviet Union, and what an advisor to Lyndon Johnson called a “weapons system” for the North Vietnamese.
Moreover, diplomacy will work with the most determined aggressor only after national prestige has been maintained by a consistent punishment of those who break their word or cheat on their agreements, or by determined actions that threaten the aggressor’s own power and prestige. Ronald Reagan’s world-changing diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev worked not because the Soviets shared our principles and aims, but because diplomacy was preceded by Reagan’s military pushback against Soviet adventurism in Grenada, Afghanistan, and El Salvador; by his unpopular and much decried deployment of hundreds of U.S. cruise missiles and Pershing 2 ballistic missiles in Germany and other NATO countries in order to counter the Soviet SS-20s; and by a military build-up, and the Strategic Defense Initiative to build anti-missile networks, that the Soviets did not have the money or technical skills to match.
Until Donald Trump exited the disastrous nuclear-weapons deal with Iran, we had seldom shown such determination and willingness to use more than words and transient demonstrations of force against a sworn enemy. The overreliance on diplomacy is especially short-sighted in the case of Iran, which is ruled by a theocracy of Shia revanchist jihadists who base their government and social order on traditional Islamic law and belief. As such, Iran has explicitly and repeatedly demonstrated its scorn for and manipulation of the protocols and processes of diplomatic negotiation and international law. Indeed, it declared war on the U.S. with an act that graphically displayed its contempt for the Western “rules-based order” when it occupied our embassy and kidnaped its diplomatic staff, holding them hostage for 444 days.
Jimmy Carter’s feckless and appeasing response to this crisis confirmed the mullah’s disdain for a country that later Osama bin Laden would say had “foundations of straw.” Executive Orders amounting to paying Iran ransom brought the hostages home, since the Ayatollah Khomeini no longer had any political use for them. Unfortunately, the Reagan administration damaged U.S. prestige when in 1983 it failed to punish Iran for its jihadist proxies’ bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Beirut, killing 241. This unpunished attack became a staple of al Qaeda training lectures, supporting bin Laden’s belief that given America’s moral weakness, “it is possible to target those foundations and focus on their weakest points … then the whole edifice will totter and sway, and relinquish its unjust leadership of the world.” No better example exists of the still valid connection between aggression and prestige damaged by a failure to punish attacks.
At the end of his second term, however, the Reagan administration intervened in the Iraq-Iran war to deter Iran’s wanton attacks on international shipping and American military assets in the Gulf. From July 1987 to September 1988, the U.S. military conducted Operation Earnest Will to protect Kuwaiti shipping, but also to retaliate for Iran’s attack on the USS Stark, which killed 37 sailors and injured 21. At the operation’s height, 30 vessels from three battle carrier groups destroyed Iranian naval vessels and mine-layers, and Revolutionary Guards bases located on oil platforms. By the end of July, attacks on commercial shipping had nearly stopped, and Iran and Iraq ended the war. No better example exists that illustrates how lethal force can concentrate wonderfully the mind of an aggressor.
Subsequent history, however, has shown that bluster and appeasement have more often characterized our relations with Iran, despite its being implicated in the 9⁄11 attacks, its material and financial support of jihadists killing our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, its taking captive U.S. citizens and sailors, its adventurism in the Syrian civil war, its genocidal anti-Semitism and support for Israel’s terrorist enemies, and its rank as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. This enabling of a committed aggressor culminated in the Obama administration’s agreement to give Iran an opportunity to keep working towards nuclear weapons, with $1.5 billion and sanctions relief thrown in to sweeten the deal and to help fund Iran’s ongoing aggression.
Trump tossed out the deal and reimposed economic sanctions, with a goal of completely cutting off Iran’s income from oil exports. However, sanctions can be evaded: too many European countries are still willing to do business with Iran; cut-outs can avoid sanctions against oil sales; and China is perfectly happy to buy Iran’s oil. And we can be certain that every day that goes by Iranian research is moving closer to creating a nuclear weapon. At the same time, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are developing military assets and infrastructure in southern Syria, as they inch closer to Israel’s northern border in preparation for an attack. Our most valuable regional ally, and a model of liberal democratic freedom, does not have the luxury of waiting for the regime to collapse under the weight of sanctions and domestic discontent. Even a failing state can do a lot of damage on its way to the dustbin of history.
Trump’s aggressive stance has drastically reduced the number of incidents of Iranians’ harassment of shipping transiting the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. But recent Iranian bellicose rhetoric needs to be countered with more than words. A week ago, Trump’s National Security advisor, John Bolton, responded to Iranian bluster by promising “maximum pressure” on Iran from economic sanctions. Iran in turn, implying that America feared Iran’s might, threatened to attack U.S. and Israeli military targets and to block the Straits of Hormuz through which pass 18.5 million barrels of oil a day. This bluster comes as Iran continues its downward economic spiral, certain to increase when full sanctions on oil exports start in November.
This means that the next few months will offer an opportunity to ratchet up pressure on Iran. A kinetic response more photogenic than counter-threats, along with rigorously enforced sanctions could increase domestic pressure against the regime. And it would expose Iran’s arrogant rhetoric as mere whistling past the graveyard, damaging its prestige as the premier Muslim resistor of the “Great Satan” whose beard it has pulled with impunity for 40 years.
What sort of response? Perhaps we could send the Fifth Fleet to sail through the Gulf and the Straits, and challenge Iran’s boast of “controlling” those waterways. And if the mullahs should respond with force, give them a whiff of grapeshot. Blowing up some fast-boats and shore batteries could help them get their minds right. After all, Israel has in the last few years launched over a 100 air strikes against Iranian and Syrian military personnel and matériel, and so far, Iran has responded with bluster. The mullahs know that Israel will continue to “mow the grass” indefinitely to protect its citizens, and won’t be scared off by threats of the “mother of all wars,” as Iranian president Rouhani recently promised. Like Israel, we need to let the Iranian regime know that we will win any game of chicken they want to start.
In this long war against Iranian jihad, the stakes are too high for us to fall back into the deceptive comfort of “diplomatic engagement” and endless wars of tweets and counter-tweets. We’ve avoided decisive action for 40 years, and all we have accomplished is a fanatical millenarian cult rampaging in a region vital to our national interests, threatening our closest ally, and moving ever nearer to possessing nuclear weapons. If that finally happens, the “international rules-based order” and its fetish for diplomacy will look like a suicide pact.