Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Biden’s Decision to Station U.S. Marines on Commercial Ships in Persian Gulf Is Bizarre 

Calling up U.S. Marines is a drastic step. To risk war only to use them as Band-Aids is irresponsible. If Iran wishes to follow Somalia down the piracy rabbit hole, it is time to put Tehran on the defensive and make Iran pay the economic price. Only through robust deterrence will the IRGC stop targeting international shipping.

Joe Biden. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore.
U.S. President Joe Biden reacts as he makes a statement about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas shortly after Biden returned to Washington from his trip to South Korea and Japan, at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to station U.S. Marines on commercial ships in the Persian Gulf is bizarre. 

While Biden is correct that there must be a response to Iran’s growing threats to international shipping and its piracy, he appears not to recognize that his own permissive diplomatic policy has encouraged the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ rogue behavior in this regard.

Meanwhile, stationing Marines on ships is a dangerous move toward conflict, with little promise to change Iranian behavior. After all, should the Guard Corps seek to hijack a ship with Marines onboard, it would mean either direct military engagement between Americans and the Guard Corps, or exposure of Biden’s unwillingness to take action. This could aggravate Iranian aggression elsewhere. At best, the IRGC might simply try to outlast American strategic patience. 

In short, Biden risks war even while doing nothing to disadvantage Iran strategically. Perhaps it is time for him to take some lessons from the past.

First, there is no substitute for the Maximum Pressure approach to dealing with Iran. Sanctions and isolation forced revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to release the 52 hostages he seized at the American embassy on November 4, 1979. Likewise, while late Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs show Khomeini rebuffed a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War in 1982, by 1988 the economic cost of the war forced him to change his mind. In a radio broadcast, Khomeini likened the 1988 ceasefire with Iraq to “drinking from a chalice of poison,” but maximum pressure mandated the compromise.

Second, if Biden is willing to take the significant risk of a shooting war with Iran, he might as well get a more tangible advantage from the Marines’ deployment. Here, he might take a lesson from the late Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, Jr. A former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Lyons during the Carter administration drew up war plans to compel the release of the American hostages. At their core, they involved seizure of Iranian oil facilities to grind Iran’s economy to a halt.

If Iran attacks neutral shipping, that is just the short of action that should be suggested in response. The Persian Gulf is narrow, and surprisingly shallow. Its average depth is just 115 feet, and at its deepest, it is only 295 feet deep. Compare that to Lake Michigan, with an average depth of 279 feet and a maximum depth of 922 feet. Iran’s Persian Gulf shores are notoriously rocky. As a result, most tankers cannot pull into Iranian ports, and they load instead by pipelines and offshore oil terminals. Seizing these in response to any Iranian act of piracy would have a far greater deterrent impact on Iran. The hit on the Iranian economy would be immediate. Every Iranian commander remembers what happened in 1988 when the Iranian military challenged Marines and U.S. sailors over possession of Iranian offshore oil platforms.  

Biden’s team might worry about the effect on oil prices of such actions, and they would be right to worry. Allowing Iranian piracy, however, also affects oil prices — both directly and through higher insurance rates for tankers. Further, the oil market is much broader than it was in Carter’s day. The United States, for one, has far greater resources at its disposal should the White House take a whole-of-government approach to the problem. 

Nor do U.S. forces need to be in harm’s way to deter Iran. Prior to 1991, the U.S. Navy did not send aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf due to the constraints of operating in such narrow waters. The best way to make Iran take U.S. diplomacy seriously is to station a carrier 400 miles from Iran’s shore in the northern Indian Ocean. Every IRGC flag officer would understand the implications: From such a position, the U.S. could strike Iran while staying beyond the range of Iranian retaliation.

Calling up U.S. Marines is a drastic step. To risk war only to use them as Band-Aids is irresponsible. If Iran wishes to follow Somalia down the piracy rabbit hole, it is time to put Tehran on the defensive and make Iran pay the economic price. Only through robust deterrence will the IRGC stop targeting international shipping.

Author Expertise 

Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Advertisement