How to answer Iran’s deadly Gulf games

It’s clear that President Trump had good reason to send the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, flanked by destroyers and cruisers, to the Persian Gulf to protect shipping lanes from Iranian aggression. Then again, if American military power is merely political performance art, rather than a tool of genuine deterrence, what’s the point?

Even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran trying to calm tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic, the Iranians were carrying out a sophisticated attack on the Japanese-owned tanker Kokuka Courageous. The message was explicit: If the United States doesn’t drop its sanctions, Iran will disrupt oil shipments and threaten the world’s economy.

The Trump administration, quick to blame the Islamic Republic for the attacks, has produced a video and photos of an Iranian navy boat removing evidence of an unexploded mine attached to the hull of the Japanese-owned oil tanker. None of which stopped Obama-era echo-chamberists like Ben Rhodes from calling for international investigations into the matter, intimating that the attacks might be a “false flag” operation by some other nation.

Why would the Iranians do something so foolish, they ask? It doesn’t make sense.

Well, it’s simple, really. First, this is the brand of terrorism that Iran — either directly or through its numerous proxies — has employed, without any real repercussions, for the past 40 years. Last year, the Revolutionary Guard commander, Ismail Kowsari, in fact, explicitly promised his forces would ignite havoc in the Gulf if the United States sanctioned Iranian oil sales.

The Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, sees around 30%  of the world’s crude oil and natural gas sail through it. Once the extremist mullahs of Iran are in possession of nuclear weapons, the world’s economy will be their hostage.

Then again, the Iranians — not only responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen but a player in nearly every destructive conflict in the Middle East today — already act with impunity.

The attacks on shipping are meant to spike oil prices to damage the world economy and undermine Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign. An added bonus, of course, is that a campaign may undercut Trump’s electoral chances in 2020 and bring someone into the White House who would almost certainly reenter the Obama-era nuke deal with Iran and allow it a wide berth to destabilize the region.

Perhaps Iranian leadership has been emboldened after listening to former Obama administration officials like John Kerry tell them to wait out the president.

Yet despite domestic scaremongering about the prospects of “stumbling into war” with Iran, no one wants all-out conflict, especially not the mullahs. They would be devastated in such a clash. The Iranians, running a war of attrition, seem to be calibrating their attacks to inflict as much damage as possible without sparking a retaliatory strike by Trump, who has been reticent to engage militarily.

The administration shouldn’t allow the mistakes of the Iraq invasion, and subsequent attempts at social-engineering democracy, to handcuff the United States from using force if needed. Deterrence in the Gulf doesn’t work if everyone knows we won’t react.

In the end, whether we have an appetite for such a confrontation or not, something has to be done about the Islamist state’s obsession with attaining nuclear weapons. “You should know that if we planned to produce nuclear weapons,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said just this week, “America could not do anything.”

Perhaps not. Yet these attacks are likely proof that Trump’s sanctions agenda is working.

The Iranian economy is in shambles. The Revolutionary Guard’s terrorist proxy armies have been financially squeezed. The mullahs are lashing out. We can do something now by exerting maximum economic pressure, or we can delay a confrontation, as the Iran deal did, to a time when we are in a weaker position.

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the US will “stand with its partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability,” Iran’s mullahs, obviously, are betting we won’t. Let’s hope Trump & Co. prove them wrong.

Twitter: @DavidHarsanyi

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