Three small Iranian warships came uncomfortably close to a U.S. Navy coastal patrol ship and a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat in the Persian Gulf last week, the Navy reported. The Iranian vessels “failed to exercise due regard for the safety of other vessels,” said the Navy statement, “as required under international law … in international waters.”
This is the second such encounter between American and Iranian forces recently. It also comes shortly after leaked audio heard Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complaining that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which operated the harassing Iranian crafts, has forced him to “sacrific[e] diplomacy for the battlefield.”
The question that context should raise in Washington is this: Why risk these close calls at all?
Why put U.S. troops in harm’s way for no clear benefit? Why chance upsetting the indirect U.S.-Iran nuclear talks finally underway in Europe? (And why, by the way, is our Coast Guard operating halfway across the planet from the American coast and just a few miles from the coast of Iran?)
The assumption that the United States should have a permanent and significant military presence in the Gulf is well-established in Washington, and that presence has expanded in recent months in what is widely thought to be a message to Iran. As the Navy said in December of its decision to surface the guided-missile submarine USS Georgia (though the channel is deep enough for it to travel submerged), “Georgia’s presence … demonstrates the U.S. Navy’s ability to sail and operate wherever international law allows.” The U.S. military is in the Persian Gulf to show Iran it can be there, to dare them to find out what happens if they make more trouble than buzzing U.S. boats.
But is that a good enough strategic reason for the risk this perpetual military presence incurs? It’s at least debatable.
Despite its outsize appearance in the current pantheon of U.S. antagonists, Iran is at most a regional power. It’s hemmed by regional enemies, including both state (chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia) and non-state (the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups) actors. Its whole GDP (about $450 billion) is smaller than the Pentagon’s annual budget (about $700 billion). It’s had a rough go of the COVID-19 pandemic and has suffered multiple significant natural disasters over the past few years. Recovery from all these crises—as well as ordinary life for Iranian civilians—has been hindered by crushing sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and retained by President Biden.
All of this is to say Iran is not a peer competitor, and there is no scenario in which it could somehow conquer the United States. Yet that does not mean the military conflict made more likely by our naval presence in the Gulf should be taken lightly. Iran can’t conquer us if we stumble into war, but it can absolutely entangle us in another bloody, costly, multi-decade misadventure which saps American lives and resources against more pressing threats.
We won’t lose a war with Iran in the old sense, where we’d end up ceding territory and suing for relief. We’d lose in the sense that we’ve lost the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Somalia: by inflicting misery on ourselves and the local civilian population, running up our national debt, miring our military in corrupt and futile nation-building projects, and delaying withdrawal indefinitely even though there is no realistic path to anything that may be plausibly called “victory” or “peace.”
That grim picture should be ever in Washington policymakers’ minds when they consider rattling sabers in the Persian Gulf. International waters or not, this is Iran’s neighborhood, and everyone understands the statement an aggressive U.S. Navy presence makes. It’s a reckless provocation, particularly given what we know about the comparative weakness of Iran’s civilian leaders. Putting our forces so close to Iran empowers the militaristic, hardline factions in Tehran and disempowers the moderate Iranian diplomats who share our vital interest in avoiding war.
President Biden’s administration recently promised he would not “use our troops as bargaining chips” in Afghanistan, rejecting the tactic of keeping U.S. forces in the line of fire in perhaps vain hope of improving the American position at the negotiating table. Biden should apply that logic to diplomacy with Iran, too. He should get our troops away from Iranian deployments in the Persian Gulf, reduce the chance of unwanted escalation, and give the nuclear talks a shot at success.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.