from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

How Not To React To Provocations From Iran

January 16, 2012

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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.