How to respond to “the pirates of Tehran”

I divide the Never Trumpers into two groups. Members of the first group adhere to the conservative views they held pre-Trump. Members of the second group have allowed their hatred of the president to infect their thinking on substantive issues. In my view, only the former are worthy of respect.

Bret Stephens belongs to the first group. In this column for the New York Times, he basically backs the Trump administration’s position in the escalating dispute with Iran. Not for Stephens, the blame America first approach of the Washington Post. He finds convincing the evidence that Iran has attacked ships in the Persian Gulf, and unconvincing the argument that it’s Trump fault.

Turning to the question of how the U.S. should respond if the Iranian attacks continue, Stephens urges a forceful approach:

The Trump administration ought to declare new rules of engagement to allow the Navy to engage and destroy Iranian ships or fast boats that harass or threaten any ship, military or commercial, operating in international waters. If Tehran fails to comply, the U.S. should threaten to sink any Iranian naval ship that leaves port.

If after that Iran still fails to comply, we would be right to sink its navy, in port or at sea. The world cannot tolerate freelance Somali pirates. Much less should it tolerate a pirate state seeking to hold the global economy hostage through multiplying acts of economic terrorism.

Stephens reminds us that, in 1988, a U.S. frigate was badly damaged when it hit an Iranian naval mine while sailing in the Persian Gulf. Four days later, the U.S. Navy destroyed half the Iranian fleet in a matter of hours. Iran did not molest the Navy or international shipping for many years thereafter.

This isn’t 1988, though. Iran is less cowed by the U.S. these days, and far more capable now of responding to U.S. military action by inflicting damage on U.S. interests in a variety of ways.

Even so, Stephens is right that “firing on unarmed ships in international waters is a direct assault on the rules-based international order” and that “to allow it to go unpunished isn’t an option” (not an acceptable one, anyway). If Iran persists with its attacks, the U.S. will have to take military action. Sinking Iran’s navy sounds like the right kind of response.

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