America Must Deter Iranian Maritime Aggression in the Persian Gulf
Iranian maritime actions in the Persian Gulf have gained renewed attention after a mid-August statement by the U.S. military that Iranian forces had boarded a civilian vessel operating in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz. The ship in question was reportedly linked to a company that had been previously sanctioned by the United States for supporting the shipment of restricted Iranian oil, and was no longer cooperating with the Iranian regime as a result of those sanctions. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Government seized Iranian petroleum being transported in violation of U.S. sanctions by four foreign-flagged vessels operating on the high seas. The petroleum in question was en route to Venezuela, which is an Iranian ally.
This came on the heels of a relative lull in U.S.-Iranian maritime interactions in the Persian Gulf following U.S. President Donald Trump’s April 2020 directive to the American Navy to destroy Iranian gunships that harass the U.S. naval fleet. The President’s order was a response, in part, to an incident that occurred on April 15th, 2020, when, according to a fact sheet released by the U.S. Department of State, “eleven IRGC Navy small boats disrupted five U.S. naval vessels conducting a routine exercise by repeatedly engaging in high speed, harassing approaches. The Iranian vessels repeatedly crossed the bows and sterns of the U.S. ships coming as close as to within 10 yards of a US Coast Guard Cutter.”
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy has a long history of provoking U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf and regularly risks collision with American ships. While recent tensions with Washington may be the proximate cause for Tehran’s aggression, Iranian provocations and attacks against U.S. and other international vessels in the Persian Gulf have occurred regularly for years, over the course of multiple U.S. Presidential Administrations, and through varying international political climates. It is in American and worldwide interest to deter this behavior.
The history of hostilities between the Islamic Republic and the United States is long and complex. Part of the geopolitical rivalry between the two nations centers on the Persian Gulf and on the Strait of Hormuz in particular. The Strait of Hormuz is a strategic chokepoint that connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea and is the single passageway in and out of the gulf. It is also the world’s most important shipping lane for oil, with tens of millions of barrels per day passing through the strait. This strait has been the subject of contention for decades.
Tehran has targeted more than just American-flagged vessels in the Persian Gulf. In May and June of 2019, the U.S. Navy blamed Iran for detonating limpet mines on Saudi, Emirati, Japanese, and Norwegian ships in the Gulf. During the same time period, the IRGC Navy seized a British-flagged oil tanker while it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz and detained it for two months. And just a month earlier, Iran shot down an American unmanned aircraft operating over international waters in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran’s objective, in these cases, has been to disrupt the flow of oil through the gulf as a means to pressure the international community into easing sanctions against Tehran. Iran has threatened to shut down the strait if, due to international sanctions, it is unable to ship its own oil unimpeded through the waterway. Referring to blocking the Strait of Hormuz, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani noted to Tasnim News in 2019 that “there are multiple ways to make that happen. We hope we would not be forced to use them.”
Iran is acutely aware that a hot war with the United States or other regional players is possible, and encounters in the Persian Gulf with American military vessels provide it with a database and set of guidelines for how aggressive its naval forces can be during such encounters. Iran is facing crippling sanctions that are strangling its economy and has little to lose as it engages in desperate measures to force the international community to the negotiating table.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have exercised discretion and patience for years during interactions with Iranian naval elements on the Persian Gulf. Broader U.S. strategy in the region has often superseded an interest in demonstrating a conclusive deterrent to irresponsible Iranian behavior on the high seas. Choosing not to take action against this aggressive activity has prevented greater escalation in the short run, but American restraint over the longer term has served to embolden Iran and encourage its behavior.
Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and its harassment of U.S. vessels in the gulf may serve as a prelude to a future attack. The al-Qaeda attack against the USS Cole in 2000 demonstrated that even a small, seemingly insignificant fishing vessel can do substantial damage to a major U.S. warship. Iran has shown its willingness to engage in lethal activities through the IRGC Qods Force and its sponsorship of Hizballah, and the U.S. should not discount the possibility that those lethal activities could soon be aimed more directly at American interests.
Tehran should heed America’s warning and cease harassment of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Doing so will save Iranian lives. If Iranian naval elements continue to probe and harass American vessels, the U.S. and Iran may end up in an open military engagement in the Gulf. Individual sailors and soldiers of all nationalities value their lives and do not want them wasted by an overeager commander or an insulated and disconnected Ayatollah in Tehran.
From a broader strategic viewpoint, it is due time for the world to enforce clear boundaries regarding Iranian activity in the Persian Gulf and around the world. Crude oil is the lifeblood of the world’s economy and will remain so for the foreseeable future, and much of this oil transits the Strait of Hormuz. The international community should be free to operate in international waters while abiding by international law without interference from Iranian naval elements. Enforcing this principle will have implications beyond just the Persian Gulf, and will send a message to Tehran that the U.S. and global community will no longer tolerate the totality of nefarious Iranian activity worldwide. At certain points Washington may have had larger strategic aims while trying to normalize relations with Tehran, but that time has passed, and U.S. interests now lie in drawing a clear line through activities that America and the world will no longer accept.