On Tuesday, Iranian patrol craft fired warning shots, then seized the Maersk Tigris in the Hormuz Straits. Despite the seizure, diplomats from Iran, the United States and four other major powers will resume talks Thursday . . . Two weeks ago, the U.S. dispatched an aircraft carrier to waters near Yemen and the Iranian convoy carrying arms to Yemeni rebels turned back.
“From the Iranian view, that was a storm in a teacup that was designed to put Iran in its place and belittle it,” said Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Iran. “So the choice of this particular ship (Maersk) is to show that Iran can have teeth, too.”
On three levels, this incident mocked America before the eyes of the world.
First, a bedrock principle of global order was breached with no response from America or the global community. Here in the States, the act of state piracy was upstaged by Baltimore, the economy, the Clinton “charity” scandals, etc. The American press, pundits and politicians made scant comment.
Since World War II, the American Navy has been the guarantor of freedom of the seas for all nations and commerce. The U.S. Navy prides itself upon its annual forays into disputed waters to demonstrate that seizing ships like the Tigris means engaging American warships. But neither the White House nor the Navy declared that Tuesday’s seizure violated that basic norm. Instead, the Iranian foreign minister brazenly invoked respect for freedom of navigation. Iran flexed its muscles and America did nothing. Translation: The U.S. is a paper tiger, and Iran will seize other ships as it pleases. When a timorous America imposes no penalty for state piracy, such actions are sure to repeat. Imagine how that affects the calculus of a hundred nations and thousands of ship owners.
Second, it demonstrated that the Obama White House knew it was going to be backed down in the Gulf sooner or later. A succession of senior U.S. military commanders have asked for rules of engagement to prevent this very type of piracy, and been refused by the White House. After the 1968 North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo and the 1975 Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez, our military realized it could not wait hours or days for authority to take action. Our military has consistently sought rules of engagement permitting the combatant commander responsible for the theater to act immediately. The Obama White House has refused to permit such RoE release in the case of Iran.
Third, the seizure illustrated that Mr. Obama is determined to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, regardless of what actions Iran takes. Some claim that “hard liners” — the Revolutionary Guard fighting alongside the Shiite militias in Iraq – seized the ship without authorization from the Iranian government. However, the rationale later offered was that the seizure was due to a financial dispute not involving the Revolutionary Guard. The IRGC, then, either is the government, or is obeying the orders of the government.
Either way, the seizure was not an accident; it was ordered by the same government with whom Mr. Obama is determined to sign a nuclear agreement. Mr. Obama could suspend negotiations, with sanctions in place, until the Tigris is released. But he will not.