Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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How Not To React To Provocations From Iran

by Elliott Abrams
January 16, 2012


If there is any chance of avoiding a military confrontation with Iran or the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, that chance will be the product of very resolute American policy toward Iran. In the last few days we have seen more evidence that such a policy is lacking.

First came the report that Iranian boats are harassing American naval vessels in the  Persian Gulf.

Iranian Navy speed boats harassed US naval vessels in two recent incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, a senior US defense official said, confirming a CNN report. The first incident occurred as the USS New Orleans, an amphibious transport ship, was sailing last week through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. Three Iranian Navy speed boats rapidly approached within 500 yards of the US ship, according to US officials cited by CNN. The second incident involved a US Coast Guard cutter off the Kuwaiti coast, similarly approached by an Iranian speedboat. Sailors aboard the cutter USCGC Adak reported seeing Iranians aboard the speed boat brandishing AK-47 assault rifles and a heavy machine gun, CNN said. “I can confirm there was some harassment,” a senior official told AFP.

How do we respond to such provocations?  Here is one possible answer:

Israel and the United States have postponed a massive joint defense exercise, which was expected to be carried out in the coming weeks, in order to avoid an escalation with Iran, Channel 2 reported on Sunday.

That is the wrong response, especially at a moment when Iran is going full steam ahead with its nuclear program and now indulging itself in direct threats to Gulf oil producers. Here is a new report:

Iran has starkly warned Gulf states not to make up for any shortfall in its oil exports under new U.S. and EU sanctions, adding yet another layer of peril to the international showdown over its nuclear programme. If Arab neighbours compensate for a looming EU ban on Iranian imports, “we would not consider these actions to be friendly,” Iran’s representative to OPEC, Mohammad Ali Khatibi, was quoted as saying by the Sharq newspaper on Sunday. “They will be held responsible for what happens” in that case, he said, adding ominously: “One cannot predict the consequences.”

Iran’s Arab neighbors are not rattled, as this story suggests:

Saudi Arabia says it has enough oil output capacity to meet global customers’ needs if new sanctions keep Iran from exporting oil, a top U.S. Republican lawmaker said on Friday. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor spoke to Reuters by telephone from Europe after several days of meetings in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi was among the officials he met. “The Saudi government indicatedthat it was ready and able to meet needs of its customers,” Cantor told Reuters.

In fact, comparing this Saudi reaction to the cancellation of the US-Israel maneuvers, we are perhaps more rattled than they–which if accurate is a sad story, as is the story of failures to react to completely unprovoked harassment by the Iranian navy. Surely such an American stance will do nothing to persuade Iran’s rulers that we are serious about preventing their acquisition of nuclear weapons by whatever means necessary and that “all options are on the table.” Such a stance therefore makes an eventual confrontation between the United States and Iran, or U.S. acquiescence in the Iranian nuclear program, more likely.






Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    We selected a bad leader in 2008. We have to get ourselves a new one this year before his mistakes come back to haunt us in the next four years.

  • Posted by Mike From Tampa

    Mr Abrams: You missed the point. The United States cancelled the training session with Israel to put some distance between the US and Israel. It was a rebuke from the US to Israel concerning the assassination of the Iranian scientist, the failure of Israel to promise to give advanced warning of a strike on Iran and the use of CIA cover by the mossad in attacks against Iran as outlined in ForeignPolicy.

    The US has 2-3 years to prepare for war against Iran. We are in no rush.

  • Posted by elle909

    mike your wrong the training as per debka files was canceled
    by the israeli government.to the great surprise of obama.
    that is why all the hoopla in the u.s getting ready to protect
    assets in the Persian golf,the fear is that Israel is ready to
    attack Iran in the next couple of months,and by the way
    that is in the lack of response by the u.s to the iranian threat
    that no u.s navy ships will enter the straights of hormuz
    in short the u.s has chicken’d out big time

  • Posted by Andrew

    I’m curious – what would be an appropriate response to the speedboats? I’ve heard that some private ships have an anti-piracy device which is basically a really loud, narrowly directed loudspeaker. It hurts / damages the pirates’ ears. Maybe something like that could be used?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    In my view, if these boats genuinely threaten our ships they should be sunk. The Navy should tell Iran what the rules are, and if they break those rules they pay the consequences. Otherwise we will some day be left explaining how another USS Cole incident was allowed to happen, with loss of sailors’ lives.

  • Posted by elle909

    the answer to the speedboats is very simple.
    all navy ships in the theatre of operations must have additional
    machine guns port and starboard,have them maned
    24/7 while in hostile waters.also most navy frigates
    and destroyers have landing pads,there should be attack helicopters on them ready to engage this kind of threat
    from a great distance,i am sure the navy knows that.

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