January 7, 2008

Aggressive Iranian Navy

This morning's note of displeasure came from noting a brief story on CNN about another act of aggression by the Iranian navy. I'm sure the Iranians have their version of events, but it will lack credibility, just as their version of the events leading up to the kidnapping of British sailors this summer lacked credibility.

Mahmood Ahmadinejad is suffering a loss of some political capital in Tehran, due to the internal political machinations of the Iranian government. Like many would-be dictators, he finds the United States a convenient foil for demonstrating his "strength" and "patriotism." By picking a fight with the U.S., he can rally his own people behind him and gain the upper hand on those within his own nation who would take power from him.

Now, that's not to say that Ahmadinejad's opponents within Iran's government are "good guys." They might favor less overt challenges to the west, but the "moderate" elements of that government, who seek more open relations, freer trade, more liberalized social and human rights policies, and most of all, a less adventurous foreign policy for Iran -- those guys are so thoroughly in check that their existence can be discounted, in the short run. The question is not whether Iran will continue to be hostile to the U.S. and its western allies, the question is what form will that hostility take, and how should we respond to it.

An interesting question for all the Presidential candidates -- "An Iranian ship opens fire on a U.S. ship in the Strait of Hormuz. The vessels exchange fire, and both sides suffer casualties but they do not further engage. How do you react?" There are several choices, ranging from most dovish to most hawkish:
  1. Immediately question the U.S. naval commanders to determine fault, and if the facts are favorable to the U.S. side, demand that a neutral party (perhaps the U.N. or a mutually-agreeable third party) determine fault;
  2. Demand an apology and reparations to the U.S. casualties; to be followed by further accusations of fault but no overt military action if the incident is not repeated;
  3. Refuse to admit fault regardless of the facts, and publicly instruct naval commanders that their rules of engagement have been altered to allow for return of fire against Iranian vessels under a wider variety of provocations;
  4. Punitive airstrikes on Iranian naval installations near the Straits of Hormuz.

I think #2 is probably the most prudent choice, myself -- but that's because I think we can ill afford a war with Iran. The real question is, can Iran afford a war with us?

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