In the first week of 2012, President Obama finally approved tough sanctions on Iran’s central bank, aiming to cripple Iran’s oil trade and thwart its advanced efforts to possess a nuclear weapon. Iran’s armed-forces commander, Gen. Ataollah Salehi, threatened military action against the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier operating in international waters: “We warn this ship, which is considered a threat to us, not to come back . . . ” The next day, Iran’s parliament began to prepare a bill that would prohibit all foreign warships from using an international waterway, the Strait of Hormuz, to enter the Persian Gulf without the Iranian navy’s permission. Although recently validated analyses by the U.S. Navy confirm that Iran could not maintain a disruption of oil flows through the Strait for more than a few days, the same studies acknowledge that even a temporary loss of predictability in the movement of roughly 15 million barrels per day to the global market would send the price of crude to more than $200 a barrel for a prolonged period of time. Such a price increase could soon lead to renewed recession or the collapse of the global economy. In 1812, we went to war to preserve freedom of the seas. Two centuries later, faced with a modern threat of the same character, what should we do?
We know from long experience that if the administration continues merely to criticize Iran’s behavior, Iran will respond as it has for over 30 years, by simply ignoring us. Those who advocate relying solely on a resumption of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program are essentially suggesting we repeat the failed approach of virtually every president since Jimmy Carter. The only sure result will be to provide Iran, yet again, with more time to complete its nuclear-weapons program. Indeed, responding with one more empty statement to yet another threat to close the Strait is likely to prove counter-productive, confirming what the regime in Tehran believes: that the U.S. does not have the will to use significant force. The regime in Tehran is not worried about losing a few small missile-armed boats if it can intimidate the world into easing sanctions by damaging or sinking a U.S. vessel. Even the new, tougher sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank, while essential, may be too late to weaken Iran enough to get us through the near-term crisis effectively.
Separately but relatedly, we are awakening to the reality that veiled, ambiguous American or Israeli threats to surgically attack Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities have not led Iran to change course. Those who point out that much of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure is deeply buried and difficult to attack successfully with even the best of today’s conventional weapons have a point. Although much damage to that infrastructure is possible with air strikes, it is also true that if the regime is left intact it will exploit any attack limited to nuclear installations to rally the nation behind the regime. In sum, if we continue to rely on empty rhetoric, or even combine that with attacks on, say, Iranian uranium-enrichment facilities, the crisis could be quite prolonged. The world could face a substantial period of time in which we experience very high oil prices and catastrophic effects on a faltering world economy — disruption of trade, skyrocketing insurance rates, and more.
Two steps are vital if we are to see this crisis ended without prolonged economic chaos, the risk of indeterminate and ineffective military engagements, or caving in to the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
First, we must demand freedom for the Syrian and Iranian peoples and commit ourselves to helping them in effective ways as they seek to free themselves from the tyrants that rule them. Regarding Syria, the Obama administration has not even led from behind, and has dealt far more delicately with Assad than with either Qaddafi or Mubarak, when neither of the latter posed a strategic threat to the U.S. The present Syrian dictatorship, as Tehran’s lackey, terrorism implementer, and anchor in the Arab world, constitutes a critically important element in Iran’s strategy to outflank Sunni Islam, and poses a serious threat to U.S. interests and to peace in the Middle East. We should return immediately to the most effective steps we have taken over the years to support domestic dissidents during the Cold War and after, and apply them in spades to helping undermine the Syrian and Iranian regimes. In Syria the people are already in the streets. In Iran they were, in 2009, protesting Ahmadinejad’s theft of the election, but were essentially ignored by the U.S.
Second, the president needs to learn from Teddy Roosevelt, but not about how to smooth some of the sharper edges of a laissez faire economy, as he discussed in a recent speech in Kansas. When Teddy Roosevelt pondered how American interests might best be protected and advanced, he dispatched the Great White Fleet around the world. He did so without a word of threat or bluster.
So how about trying a TR-like approach to the current situation? Send at least four carrier battle groups and a substantial number of strategic bombers to locations from which they could carry out operations against Iran. Let it be known indirectly that, in the event the Iranian regime were to attempt to close the Strait, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — the power behind the Iranian dictatorship, the principal enemy of the Iranian people, and the leaders’ key instrument of repression — will be held at risk; its facilities, its terrorist training camps, its navy of small attack boats, its missile program, the homes of its leaders, its space program, everything preponderantly Guard-related, will be vulnerable. (This would exclude most civilian targets, such as the electric grid, and most military targets, which are not Guard-related.)
Then go TR one better. Don’t just speak softly; indeed don’t say a word. And let Iran’s corrupt and cruel elite contemplate that you are carrying not just a big stick, but one that could be wielded decisively.
— R. James Woolsey was Director of Central Intelligence during the Clinton administration from 1993 to 95, and now chairs the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Robert McFarlane served as President Reagan’s national-security adviser from 1983 to 85 and is currently a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.