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Why Are U.S. Navy Warships and Coast Guard Boats Anywhere Near Iran?

U.S. Navy Iran
PACIFIC OCEAN (April 17, 2021) Naval Special Warfare combatant craft conduct maritime interoperability training with Marines assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) alongside the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego (LPD 22) near Guam. Naval Special Warfare is the nation’s premier maritime special operations force and is uniquely positioned to extend the fleet’s reach and deliver all-domain options for naval and joint force commanders. (U.S. Navy photo)

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.

Bonnie Kristian
Written By

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.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mark Matta

    May 5, 2021 at 7:49 am

    This is a really dumb article and I cant believe I read the whole thing. It just shows the author has a real thin and narrow vision of reality.

    • Avatar

      Scott L

      May 5, 2021 at 10:23 am

      You nailed it. She needs to learn more about a subject before she puts her slanted opinion on the Internet. She is clueless in this respect.

    • Avatar

      John

      May 5, 2021 at 10:27 am

      Agree, what a waste of time. The author should do a little research and she would understand the “strategic” reasons we have naval forces there. Good grief.

      • Avatar

        Matt Musson

        May 5, 2021 at 10:47 am

        In 1945, under the Bretton-Woods Accords, the US committed it’s Navy to imposing Freedom of the Seas. The US Navy is in the Straits because we promised we would keep the sea lanes clear.

        But, the Bretton-Woods Accords were aimed at bribing up an alliance against the Soviet Union. And, now that the USSR is dead and gone, we are not getting any benefit using American Blood and Treasure to make it safe for Chinese ships to gather Middle Eastern Oil and take it back home.

    • Avatar

      bmiller

      May 5, 2021 at 11:59 am

      This article reflects the intelligence of the author? Dunno.

      But to pose a question in the headline and then never answer it smacks of clickbait. Maybe she’s just earning her weekly paycheck?

  2. Avatar

    John P. Chambers

    May 5, 2021 at 7:58 am

    Same thing, different day? Just as the Tonkin Gulf aggressive patrols furnished the option of manufacturing provocation? Perhaps, but marine transit protection is essential to world order, no? Think of it as others ducking their share of the work, perhaps? Bullies can’t ignore teasing, and we’re seen worldwide as precisely that as a result of our idiotic , ethnocentric foreign policies since the second world war. As you suggest, we should play to surprise, to win, not merely bring the richest, largest team to the games in anticipation of a shadowy victory.

    • Avatar

      cheddar baggins

      May 6, 2021 at 5:44 am

      Protecting the flow of goods to and from the Gulf Nations is “ethnocentrism?” This is bizarre and incoherent.

  3. Avatar

    Keith Pelletier

    May 5, 2021 at 9:48 am

    The author shows a lack of knowledge and understanding of policy and tactical requirements. Coast Guard and naval vessels are there to interdict smugglers and to prevent attacks on offshore oil platforms. The CG in particular for its expertise in law enforcement boardings of commercial vessels. Coast Guard Port Security Units are in the harbors to protect U.S. military cargo operations from terrorist attack.

    Shows of force, such as the Georgia surfacing, are an effective psyops tool that makes the Iranians think twice about initiating an attack.

    Asking if we should be there at all is a reasonable discussion to have, particularly after Trump’s energy and geopolitical strategies effectively made OPEC irrelevant ,and local friendly naval/CG forces should now be able to handle the situation. However, there’s no point in asking the question without knowing why we’re there in the first place.

  4. Avatar

    KLT

    May 5, 2021 at 9:58 am

    Once you stop enforcing the right of ships/airplanes to operate in international waters/airspace, you give credence and embolden countries that claim more that 12 nautical miles. In the Persian Gulf, Iran has routinely threatened shipping in the Straits of Hormuz. Keeping the Iranian’s at bay and ensuring freedom of navigation in these waters is a never ending mission of the Navy and Coast Guard. As we saw during the early days of COVID and the recent Suez Canal blockage, international supply chains are fragile and need to be protected and maintained. This is as much about economics as it is about defense.

  5. Avatar

    Fireforeffect

    May 5, 2021 at 11:31 am

    How many countries in the last century had the military take reign over the politicians and what happened then ???

  6. Avatar

    May Nard

    May 5, 2021 at 11:56 am

    I think a third grader could probably remind this so called journalist about the recent hijacking of ships by Iran.
    Really! What’s your point Bonnie?

    • Avatar

      frazier stall

      May 5, 2021 at 4:35 pm

      A third grader would willingly agree to the U.S. sending its entire SSBN fleet to the Persian Gulf to accompany its newly minted Coast Guard Persian Gulf force and the regular U.S. Navy surface warships already there. As Bush once said : “Bring it on”.

  7. Avatar

    LEIF ERCKSON

    May 5, 2021 at 3:31 pm

    Bonnie — has it occurred to you that recently Iranian backed (financed)rebels have recently been targeting S. A. oil infrastructure with rockets ? The largest and oldest S. A. oil field and production facilities are in the Eastern Province along the Gulf. Could the U. S. have committed to helping the Saudi’s protect this coast ? ie Coast Guard and Navy.

  8. Avatar

    Mary. Williams

    May 5, 2021 at 9:09 pm

    US Navy exists to protect commercial shipping lanes and strategic waterways. Persian Gulf oil is vital for world as is Suez canal. I don’t like the Iranian threats but US Navy can handle it.

  9. Avatar

    cheddar baggins

    May 6, 2021 at 5:38 am

    Why? Because we Americans wish to live on a planet that enjoys the Free Communication upon the Sea Lines of Communication. Global trade flows through the constricted waters of the Hormuz. We cannot tolerate thugs and brigands in Tehran who seek to dominate that chokepoint. I deliberately delineate the people of Iran from the brutal, fundamentalist regime that oppresses them and seeks to oppress and destroy others.

    Appeasement and weakness are a provocation to war. An uneasy peace is much preferable to conflict, as many readers know or suspect.

    As a former naval officer, I sailed those waters, and I never once felt unsafe. Should the IRGCN receive orders to commence hostilities, they would receive such a brutal drubbing not seen since the infamous and lopsided “Tanker Wars” of ’87 and ’88.

    Our sailors, Marines, Guardsmen, Airmen, and support personnel are ready to protect the free flow of merchant shipping of all flags. A Liberty loving people must demand no less.

  10. Avatar

    Michael Todaro

    May 6, 2021 at 6:04 am

    Maybe delivering Obama $$$ to the jihadist.

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