National Security & Defense

Why — and How — the U.S. Navy Must Send Iran a Message

A Revolutionary Guard vessel photographed in July. (Photo: US Navy/Reuters)
If the Iranians continue to act aggressively and recklessly in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy should give them a bloody nose.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) continues to threaten the U.S. Navy. In recent weeks, the IRGC’s Naval component has conducted numerous simulated swarm-attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf. In each case, IRGC sailors have ignored radioed warnings from our sailors.

It has to stop. That’s certainly the view of the Pentagon. General Joseph L. Votel, the senior officer responsible for Persian Gulf operations, recently warned Iran that the U.S. would “prevail” if a skirmish occurred. Senior U.S. naval officers also regularly condemn the IRGC’s behavior. Conversely, the silence from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is deafening. Why? Fear of upsetting Iran. Just as that concern led President Obama to reject arming Iraq’s Sunni tribes against ISIS — a.k.a. the Islamic State or Daesh — the president is hoping he can ignore the IRGC into oblivion. But he’s wrong. Because the problem here is not American pride, but rather the protection of American personnel.

The Iranian revolutionaries — of which the IRGC are the elite honor guard — have a long history of spilling American blood. And in recent years, the IRGC’s navy has been buoyed by new capabilities specifically designed to sink U.S. ships. As such, if IRGC leaders keep pushing without riposte, they are likely to decide that they can strike the U.S. with minimal cost. The IRGC-Navy’s commanding officer, Ali Fadavi, is a well-known attention seeker, but he would not be in his position without a reputation for anti-American purity.

Consider this hypothetical situation. A month from now, the IRGC leadership directs a lieutenant to “go rogue” and crash an explosives-laden ship into a U.S. vessel. If the U.S. Navy sinks the lieutenant before he strikes, the IRGC would claim its sailor was murdered by an outrageous act of American aggression. In the aftermath, the Chinese and Russians would condemn the U.S. Navy, the Europeans would stay quiet, and the White House would probably apologize. But if the lieutenant succeeded, the IRGC would claim he was acting in self-defense. Or they’d claim he was overzealous and acting independently. This may seem like a stretch of the imagination, but it is not.

The IRGC thrives on using ‘cutout’ officers and operations to give its senior leaders deniability.

After all, the IRGC thrives on using “cutout” officers and operations to give its senior leaders deniability. That’s how the IRGC killed hundreds of U.S. military personnel in Iraq (Google “Iran EFP” or “Karbala Raid 2007”), that’s how the IRGC kidnapped Westerners for prisoner exchanges (Google “Peter Moore Khazali”), that’s how they plotted to blow up a packed Washington, D.C., restaurant in 2011 (Google “Quds D.C. restaurant plot”), and that’s how they are turning Iraq into a sectarian puppet state. IRGC leaders are not as cutout-clever as they think, but because the U.S. very rarely calls them on what we know they are directing, it doesn’t matter. If IRGC leaders believe they can kill American sailors without incurring significant retaliation, they will have no qualms about sending a few Iranian sailors to their deaths in order to do so. The sailors would become heroes of the Revolution; righteous heirs to the defining Shia martyr, Husayn ibn Ali, and proven servants of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theological project.

Yet a bold posture of U.S. deterrence would work. President Bush showed that in Iraq when he responded to escalating IRGC attacks on U.S. personnel by authorizing U.S. Special Operations units to smash IRGC networks. In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. has the capacity to send the IRGC another efficient and effective message. First, the U.S. should send a destroyer in proximity to one of the IRGC’s island bases near the Hormuz Strait. That destroyer’s crew should act in conformity with maritime standard-operating procedure, while asserting their right to freedom of navigation through international waters. But if Iranian vessels close within 250 yards, the U.S. crew should fire warning shots from their Phalanx weapons system. If the Iranians keep closing, they should be destroyed. The U.S. crew should video the incident. While the U.S. Navy has an array of weapons systems designed to defeat small, high-speed threats (as this video of the Phalanx in operation attests), the IRGC also knows that the U.S. has other regional air and naval assets at its disposal — the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, for one.

#related#Additionally, it’s time for the U.S. to call in some diplomatic favors. While President Obama’s credibility with U.S. regional allies has been eviscerated by Bashar al-Assad’s post-red-line survival and his never-ending chlorine-gas/forced-starvation/barrel-bomb genocide against the Syrian people, General Votel could probably arrange for a flotilla of U.S., Asia-Pacific, and European warships to sail past the IRGC island bases. That internationalist show of force would upset the IRGC for another reason: The IRGC is banking on accessing European multi-billion-dollar business contracts under the 2015 nuclear deal’s sanction relief (the IRGC controls significant elements of Iran’s economy).

Of course, all of this is imperfect. If the U.S. had two carrier groups in the region we would be in a stronger position. Still, it speaks volumes that President Obama has not yet issued a sharp public statement authorizing U.S. Navy commanders to proactively defend their crews. The IRGC might not listen, but the current status — America’s commander-in-chief staying quiet as the threat rises — is a signal of unambiguous weakness.

And that silence fuels the IRGC fire.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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