By Harlan Ullman
June 21 (UPI) — To strike or not to strike. That is the question. President Donald Trump ordered and then rescinded a retaliatory strike against Iranian targets after a $130 million U.S. Navy drone was shot down early Thursday morning over the Strait of Hormuz. Over the past weeks, two other U.S. drones were shot down, one by Iran and the other by Yemeni Houthis.
In responding to these and alleged Iranian attacks on non-U.S. merchant ships and tankers, remembering earlier Junes suggests caution. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo. A month later, World War I erupted.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler ripped up the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact and without warning invaded the Soviet Union. That a modern-day equivalent of Gavrilo Princip, the Archduke’s murderer, could trigger a crisis is not an entirely impossible thought.
The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed in August 1964 after a North Vietnamese PT boat allegedly attacked two American destroyers. The attack never took place. And the first attack was mistakenly ordered by a local North Vietnamese naval commander who mistook the presence of a U.S. warship as part of a clandestine raid against the North. Interestingly, the president suggested that Iran’s attack could have been ordered by a local commander.
Even with the strictest rules of engagement, a similar incident could occur or could be fabricated. A U.S. warship could have every indication of a hostile attack and shoot first. This happened on July 3,1988, when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial A300 airliner killing all aboard, erroneously evaluating it as an attacking jet fighter.
The White House faces difficult choices. How it will respond to Iran’s “big mistake” as Trump called the shoot down is uncertain. As no U.S flagged ship has been targeted, what then is the justification to act against the tanker attacks?
Some hawks are calling for using these tanker attacks as grounds for sinking part of Iran’s navy. This happened in 1988 after USS Samuel Roberts struck an Iranian mine.
This is not 1988. Iran and Iraq were fighting a bloody war. Washington was supporting Baghdad. Iran’s military and missile capability are superior to 30 years ago. Iran also has many other options for retaliation.
Iran could mobilize Shia militias in Iraq to attack American forces. It could direct Hezbollah to strike Israel or threaten Jordan. It could use its missiles to destroy Saudi oil infrastructure. If it can locate U.S. warships, they can be targeted. Iran has the capacity to invade Bahrain and the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquartered in Manama. And it could declare the Strait of Hormuz shut, sending oil prices to the roof and rattling financial markets.
Responses to the drone attacks raise the specter of war. If the drones have not overflown Iranian air or sea space, the United States has the right to protect. The United States could “test” Iran by escorting a drone as it has in the past. If attacked, the United States could order retaliatory strikes against Iranian military assets. If the drone overflew Iranian air space, that is a different matter. But all this risks escalation and even a regional war. At this stage, predictions are just that.
Responding to the tanker attacks is much easier. An international naval task force, much as with the anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Afric,a to guard and provide safe passage for shipping into and from the Persian Gulf could be mobilized. NATO, the European Union and affected countries could be asked to contribute assets. For NATO, this reflects old times. After the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO declared its role was “out of area or out of business.”
This international force would provide a defensive shield for shipping. Rules of engagement would be clear, such as requiring any ship or boat coming within 1,000 yards or so of a commercial vessel to be subject to search and, if evasive action were taken, could be fired upon. And reflagging might also be considered an option as it was during the Tanker War of the late 1980s when the U.S. ensign provided sanctuary for ships owned by other countries against attack.
Eerily, the situation in the Gulf could follow a path parallel to 1914. The president could conclude a major strike to include Iranian nuclear facilities is warranted at a time and place of our choosing. Some would call that a sneak attack.
The conclusion: Do not let the guns of June become the default solution for failing to pursue better options.