How to respond to the growing Iranian provocations at sea

Aug 14, 2021 | AIJAC staff

A slide from a presentation released on August  6 by the US Central Command, providing details about the drone attacks on the M/T Mercer Street carried out between July 29 and 30, 2021. (Photo: US Central Command).
A slide from a presentation released on August 6 by the US Central Command, providing details about the drone attacks on the M/T Mercer Street carried out between July 29 and 30, 2021. (Photo: US Central Command).

Update from AIJAC

08/21 #02

The attack on the M/T Mercer Street in the Gulf of Oman on July 29 and 30 by a series of drones shown to have originated in Iran, as well as a subsequent attempt to seize another ship nearby, the Asphalt Princess, by naval commandos, has ignited debate about the growing number of Iranian attacks at sea and what to do about them. (A good summary of the incidents and their aftermath is here).  These attacks also raise questions about wider Western policy toward Iran amid attempts to negotiate a return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal. This Update offers some views and analysis from these debates written by top experts.

We lead with some advice about how to respond at sea from the former commander of the US Fifth fleet, Vice-Admiral (ret.) John W. Miller. He presents the attacks as likely an Iranian attempt to test the new Israeli and US governments and their allies, and warns a failure to respond will lead to more attacks. He lays out some ideas for a multi-layered defence and early warning network in the region, while calling for a coordinated military response to the Iranians to deter them in the shorter term. For his ideas in more detail, CLICK HERE. More suggestions on potential international naval cooperation to deal with Iranian provocations come from Persian Gulf security expert Farzin Nadimi.

Next up is Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff, who draws a link between the response to Iranian naval aggression and the Biden Administration’s efforts to gain Iranian agreement to re-enter the JCPOA nuclear deal. Satloff says there is a debate in the Administration whether just publicly calling out and condemning the Iranian role in naval attacks is enough, or more needs to be done to respond, but argues that this debate ignores the likely implications for the JCPOA. He makes a strong case that a failure to respond will lead to yet further attacks by Iran, which will make a diplomatic deal less likely. For Satloff’s well-informed discussion of both the maritime issue and the JCPOA negotiations,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer a piece from renowned US foreign policy pundit and academic Walter Russell Mead, which mentions the Iranian maritime aggression but is mainly focused on prospects of a return to the JCPOA. Mead argues that the ascension of hardline new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, handpicked by Supreme Leader Khamenei, means hopes that the JCPOA could lead to Iran behaving like a normal country, and helping stablise the region,  are now dead. He says the Iranians are anyway signalling that they are not interested in a simple return to the JCPOA, because they do not trust the US not to leave again, so it is time for the Biden Administration to address this reality, even it is not what it hoped for. For Mead’s complete argument,  CLICK HERE.

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America Must Push Back on Iran’s Naval and Drone Aggression


by John W. Miller

Jewish Insititute for the National Security of America (JINSA), Aug. 11

Photographs of the damage aboard the Mercer Street caused by an Iranian UAV attack. (Photo: US Central Command)

Iran’s drone attack against the Israeli-operated MT Mercer Street offshore of Oman was its most significant escalation at sea since 2019. The attack on July 29, which killed two crew members, displayed Iran’s dangerous tendency to launch drone strikes and assault ships that are peacefully and legally transiting through international waters, particularly vessels with connections to Israel.

Adding to the list of Iran’s complete disregard for customary international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Iranian gunmen allegedly hijacked a Panama-flagged tanker, the MV Asphalt Princess, in the Gulf of Oman on August 3. Apparently, because of the ingenuity of the crew and incompetence of the alleged Iranian hijackers, the ship was “released” the following day.

With Tehran’s aggression growing at an alarming pace, the United States and its partners need a strong, persistent, and cohesive response that deters and degrades Iran’s ability to launch these deadly attacks.

According to US Central Command, Iran launched two unsuccessful drone attacks on the Mercer Street before a third explosive drone killed the Romanian captain and a British crew member. Since ships are in constant motion — striking them, let alone striking a subsection of the vessel like the bridge, as happened in this case — requires a significant degree of accuracy. Iran’s ability to specifically target the bridge may show an increase in Iranian intelligence, surveillance, and precision capabilities. By launching multiple waves of kamikaze drones, Iran signaled that it wanted to kill those on board, not merely harass them or damage the ship’s hull, as it has previously done.

Clashes between Israel and Iran escalated in April, with Iran attacking Israeli cargo ships, and Israel retaliating against Iranian military vessels. Israel has primarily targeted illicit oil sales, and there have been dozens of Israeli attacks on Iranian ships headed for Syria in furtherance of these sales and weapons proliferation in recent years.

US Vice-Admiral John W. Miller (ret.): “Washington needs to develop a comprehensive approach that includes a more consistent and potent use of military force” against Iranian maritime provocations

Tehran apparently believes that the critical waterways near its coasts are the best locations to retaliate against Israel’s military operations that seek to roll back Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon, often called the “Campaign Between the Wars.” Iran’s attack on the Mercer Street indicates that Israel’s efforts have not deterred Iran from firing at innocent shipping vessels.

Considering that new Iranian president Ebrahim Raissi took office shortly after the recent incidents and the stalled negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran is likely testing the resolve of the new Israeli government, the United States, the United Kingdom, and regional Arab partners.

Iran has designed, manufactured, and proliferated drones to proxy groups, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and Shia militias in Iraq, who are increasingly using drones to strike US service members, partners, and interests this year. Now, the attack on the Israeli vessel shows that Iran is willing and able to apply the operational and tactical lessons it has learned about drones to its maritime aggression campaign.

The continued absence of significant consequences for Tehran’s aggression will reinforce the idea that the international community lacks the will to challenge it.

When Iran did not face significant consequences for assaulting commercial ships in mid-2019, it escalated its aggression that September by attacking critical Saudi energy facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. The region faces the prospects of a similar attack if the current one is left unchecked.

In preparation for further aggression, the US Department of Defense should conduct more military training exercises with Israel and Arab partners that focus on Iranian naval and drone activity.

Building upon the Abraham Accords, Washington should push for Israel’s participation in the International Maritime Security Construct, which has escorted ships in the Arabian Gulf since 2019. The group currently includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Albania, Estonia, and Lithuania, but could benefit from Israel’s intelligence and naval capabilities.

However, this is likely not enough alone to deter the Iranians. Instead, Washington needs to develop a comprehensive approach that includes a more consistent and potent use of military force. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel should pursue a coordinated military response to Iran’s naval aggression. At the same time, the Biden administration should make clear that Israel can respond independently of any joint action.

Details of 21 incidents of naval aggression by Iran since 2019, as collated by JINSA. © JINSA

Over the longer term, Washington should lead an effort to form a regional, multilayered air defense and early warning network to enable faster identification and response against Iranian attacks. In tandem, America should collaborate with regional partners, including Israel, to upgrade existing defense systems and develop new systems. The US Army is currently assessing its recently acquired Iron Dome batteries, a system that has a naval variant that the Pentagon should explore purchasing.

America and its partners must push back on Iran’s naval and drone aggression. Accomplishing this goal requires a steadfast and comprehensive approach. Failure to do so may invite even greater aggression from Tehran.

Retired Vice Adm. John W. Miller served as commander of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. He was a participant in the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2018 Generals and Admirals Program.

How Iran’s Deadly Tanker Attack Is Linked to the Nuclear Deal

by Robert Satloff

Foreign Policy, Aug 11, 2021

If the United States does not respond to the drone strike off Oman, it could impair rather than facilitate progress on the JCPOA talks.

Iranian delta-wing drones, like the ones the US Defence Department has identified from the attacks on the Mercer Street, at a defence show in 2014. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). 

How should the United States respond to Iran’s July 31 drone attack on the Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned, Liberian-flagged, Israeli-managed oil products tanker in international waters off the coast of Oman, killing the Romanian captain and a British crewmember? The United States was obviously not a direct target of the Iranian attack. But Washington, together with other maritime powers, is the ultimate guarantor of freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans—a vital U.S. interest. The United States shares with other countries responsibility for protecting this essential principle, deterring assaults on it, and punishing egregious violations.

At the same time, the ship attack is, of course, part of the broader gray-zone campaigns Iran is waging in multiple arenas with the United States and—sometimes separately, sometimes jointly—with Israel. And it would be unwise to delink either the ship attack or the gray-zone campaign from the ongoing negotiations between Iran, the United States, and other powers over a possible return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

There is undoubtedly a debate underway in Washington about these linkages and how any response to the ship attack will impact the JCPOA talks. The U.S. decision to identify Iran as the culprit on Aug. 1 and promise, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “an appropriate response,” reflects an important stage in the debate over how Washington should act.

It is likely that some key officials in the Biden administration believe that publicly identifying Iran is a major U.S. step in itself. By this line of thinking, any U.S. role in responding to Iran’s attack by targeting Iranian assets—openly or clandestinely, through military action, cyberwarfare, or other means—would constitute a return to direct U.S.-Iranian confrontation last seen with the United States’ killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 in retaliation for attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq.

Any such escalation, so this line of reasoning goes, would risk confirming to Iran’s leadership that Washington was not interested in serious diplomacy and could not be trusted. To avoid this risk, the proponents of this approach would presumably prefer to applaud from the sidelines some appropriate Israeli response to the attack and limit U.S. efforts to diplomatic declarations rather than have the United States be involved in any action.

However, some senior officials are sure to appreciate that fingering Iran publicly as the culprit in the shipping attack will only raise expectations for a more substantive U.S. response. They will recognize the loss of U.S. deterrent power if a deadly attack on civilian shipping is not met with a forceful response.

US President Joe Biden (r) and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken (l): The Administration seems caught up in a debate about whether merely naming Iran as the culprit in the recent maritime attacks is enough, or something more forceful is needed (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com)

Missing in this back-and-forth is recognition of the impact of a strong, effective response on the Iran nuclear negotiations. Far from derailing a possible deal, as some in the White House surely worry, a U.S. response to the attack would remove one of the main reasons the talks are stuck. Right now, there are at least four reasons why an agreement with Iran hasn’t been reached, despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s public commitment to achieve a deal. A U.S. response to the Mercer Street attack should shrink that number to three.

Why no deal? First, Iran’s financial troubles have eased. Starting in 2020, during the days of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and continuing throughout the Biden administration, a sharp and sustained rise in both the oil price and the volume of Iranian crude exports gave Tehran billions of dollars in unanticipated revenue, lessening the economic urgency of a nuclear agreement that would remove many existing sanctions.

Second, Iran recognizes that the economic benefits of a return to the 2015 accord aren’t as great as originally advertised. Even with a new deal, many global banks and companies are likely to be scared away from doing business in Iran. So the incentive to return to the JCPOA, while real, isn’t as substantial as generally thought.

Third, while diplomacy sputters, Iran is making enormous progress in its nuclear program, bringing it to within weeks of what some experts consider “nuclear breakout”—broadly viewed as the capability of building a bomb. While that threshold and the exact status of Iran’s program are a matter of debate, it is beyond dispute that Iran has made significant progress toward a nuclear weapons capability during the last several months.

And fourth, Tehran and its proxies have been aggressively testing the White House—both with attacks on shipping in the Gulf and via proxy attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. targets in Iraq—without learning precisely where Washington draws a line. The most common U.S. response so far has been to hit pro-Iranian militia sites in northeast Syria, which sends a message to Tehran that the United States is avoiding conflict, not deterring it. Until that message is clarified, Iran is likely to continue ratcheting up its attacks.

An effective U.S. response to the Mercer Street attack would affect Iran’s calculus on this fourth issue. Such a response might include coordinated action with partners targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval bases, factories assembling or producing parts for military drones, or facilities supporting the export of weaponry to Iranian proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, or Lebanon. Alternatively, with partner support and participation, Washington might want to target a wider set of Iranian assets to underscore its capabilities and make Tehran uncertain about future U.S. moves. This would be a far cry from pinprick action against proxy groups and mere public declarations, both of which only invite further Iranian testing.

The United States and its partners—which could range from Britain, directly aggrieved by the Mercer Street attack, to Israel and Gulf Arab states—need not crow about delivering an effective response. They would not even have to claim public credit or responsibility; the message would be clear. Such a response would bolster deterrence in this arena. It would signal to U.S. regional allies that shrinking the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East does not mean Washington is shirking its role as a guarantor of international norms, including the all-important freedom of maritime navigation. And of special concern to the Biden administration: An effective response would have the benefit of addressing one of the four reasons for the impasse in JCPOA negotiations.

Some in the Biden administration will make the opposite case—that an effective reply to Iran’s deadly shipping attack will spook the Tehran regime, confirm to the supreme leader and his new president that the United States is a hostile power not to be trusted, and even fuel an escalation of violence and confrontation. This is a legitimate concern. Far more likely, however, is that Iran will view U.S. inaction as an invitation for further testing, itself raising the prospect of even more lethal attacks than the one on the Mercer Street and further poisoning the potential for diplomacy.

Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of resurrecting the JCPOA. But if Washington is committed to that course, the tactical path runs through an effective response to the Mercer Street attack. It won’t ensure the success of nuclear diplomacy but will remove one key obstacle to a deal.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute. This article was originally published on the Foreign Policy website.

Iran Nukes the Case for a Biden Deal


Its rulers see little advantage in rejoining an agreement the U.S. can reverse at will.

By Walter Russell Mead

Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2021

The JCPOA nuclear deal negotiators in 2015: Many US Democrats see a return to deal as a “sacred cause” but this is looking increasingly unlikely (Photo: Wikimedia commons).

This was the week that the optimistic case for restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal died. Like so many other innocents, it died at the hands of Ebrahim Raisi, the hanging judge handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader to guide the Islamic Republic through the Biden years.

For Iran optimists, the goal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was not only the normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations but the normalization of Iran. Ending sanctions and restoring economic relations between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world would reduce the influence of hard-liners over the Iranian economy. Ending Iran’s political isolation would undermine the radicals’ argument that unrelenting foreign hostility justifies harsh crackdowns at home. All this would open a political window for moderates, who would increasingly soften the regime’s harsh policies at home and end its confrontation with neighbors. A nonnuclear Iran would become a stable, democratic force in the Middle East, optimists believed.

But Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has no intention of ending up like Mikhail Gorbachev. By ruthlessly engineering the election of a hard-liner’s hard-liner to the presidency, Mr. Khamenei has slammed the door on normalization and nailed it shut.

That’s only one of the problems afflicting the JCPOA. Instead of welcoming the Biden administration’s eagerness to return to President Obama’s Iran policy, Tehran has turned up its nose at American attempts to chart a course back to mutual compliance with the terms of the deal. The ease with which President Trump was able to dump the JCPOA, and the inability of outraged Europeans to contest his imposition of unilateral sanctions, created a healthy skepticism in Iran about the deal’s value. Tehran has realized that an executive agreement like the JCPOA has no legal force in the U.S. It is not simply that a future president could follow Mr. Trump’s footsteps and reject the nuclear deal. President Biden could sign the JCPOA one week and reimpose American sanctions on whatever grounds he chose the next, and Iran would have no recourse.

Given that the nuclear deal or anything like it has zero chance of attracting the two-thirds majority of senators necessary for treaty ratification, the most Tehran can get out of the negotiating process is a Biden pinky-swear. For hard-nosed Iranian mullahs and Revolutionary Guards raised on tales of U.S. perfidy, the idea of trusting the Great Satan’s word—after he’s already fooled you once—is laughable. They see no real reason to pay any kind of price for such a weak agreement.

On the American side, too, the deal is looking less attractive within and without the administration. In retaliation for Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the additional sanctions he imposed, Iran accelerated its uranium enrichment and other bomb-related activities to the point where the 2015 nuclear deal begins to look meaningless. Sunset provisions built into the original agreement have already begun to kick in, and key restraints on both bomb-making and missile-development programs begin to disappear this presidential term.

This all puts the administration in a tricky spot. The JCPOA remains a sacred cause for many Democrats, and some believe that without re-entering the Iran deal the U.S. will be forced into an impossible choice between accepting an Iranian bomb or launching yet another Middle East war. But as Tehran delays negotiations while launching one provocation after another across the region, it’s making Mr. Biden’s path back to the JCPOA as awkward and humiliating as it possibly can.

The ascent of new hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi means that a deepening confrontation with a radicalising Iran is likely regardless of what the Biden Administration might want (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | License details)

Rather than seeing American withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq as friendly gestures meriting a constructive response, the mullahs appear to have interpreted them as a sign that the Biden administration can be safely defied. Likely believing the White House is bent on Middle East withdrawal, no matter the cost, Tehran seems to have decided to double down on its confrontational approach to capitalize on perceived U.S. weakness.

In the process, Iran is destabilizing the region and increasing the danger of war. In recent weeks, Iranian-backed militias have fired rockets into American bases in Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah has launched rocket attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon. Attacks by drones and hijackers endanger shipping in the Gulf. Israel and its newfound Arab allies face an existential choice. Will they accept Tehran as a regional hegemon as the U.S. withdraws, or will they resist? If they choose the path of defiance will America be able to stay out of the ensuing war?

A deepening confrontation with a radicalizing Iran is not what the Biden administration expected from its Middle East policy, but that is the reality with which it must cope. Attempting to placate Tehran through patience and restraint will likely only stoke the regime’s ambitions. The smell of blood in the water rarely inspires feelings of moderation and restraint among sharks.

Walter Russell Mead is the Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute, the Global View Columnist at The Wall Street Journal and the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College in New York. 


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