‘Beat your kid once a week; if you don’t know what he did, he will.” That is terrible parenting advice, but it may work on Iran. The Iranians are not being very adept in trying to keep their covert fingerprints off the recent oil tanker attacks in the Gulf. They obviously believe that Ayatollah Khomeini was right when he said, “the Americans can’t do a damned thing,” during the Iran hostage crisis. So, how should our country react if Iran keeps up its hostile hybrid actions? There are options short of all-out war.
Freedom of the seas has been an issue that has caused Americans to take military action since shortly after the Republic was founded, and we have reacted forcefully against pirates or states that act like pirates. If the evidence of Iranian complicity in the latest Gulf shipping attacks holds up, Iran has crossed a line that warrants a response. That response should not be a war of regime change or even a war, but action should be firm, and it should hurt the perpetrators — the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Signal sending by military action can be counterproductive as we found out during the Vietnam War, but this is different. During the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam, the Johnson administration engaged in periodic signal sending bombing against purely military targets. It did no damage to the North’s infrastructure and very little to its military capabilities.
The cynical men in Hanoi quickly realized that the bombing was a paper tiger and appropriately ignored it. Contrast that with the Nixon administration’s Linebacker campaigns, designed to get Hanoi back to serious negotiations after its delegation walked out of the Paris Peace Talks. Linebacker hit military and civil infrastructure in a way that really hurt. In addition, the major North Vietnamese ports were mined, cutting off Russian arms shipments. There was also a credible threat of further escalation, and that worked.
The Iranians obviously believe that they can get away with covert hybrid warfare to convince the Trump administration to ease the pressure that is currently being placed on the Iranian economy. If they think that will work, they have likely misjudged the president. Unless I miss my guess, Mr. Trump will have the secretary of State announce even more economic pressure with a threat that if the current foolishness continues there will be more serious consequences. The question is what those consequences should be?
If Iran continues with hybrid attacks, the United States should target IRGC.
The IRGC is the hammer of the state. It is the mechanism by which the Supreme Leader and Guardian Council controls the nation. If the Revolutionary Guard cannot operate effectively at home, the ayatollahs are in danger of losing control.
Each subsequent act of vandalism by Tehran should be met with an escalating series of strikes deigned to emasculate the IRGC and drive it underground, where it cannot effectively control the population in times of civil unrest. That will present the ayatollahs with an existential threat to their power without direct American ground intervention to effect regime change giving Iranian leadership a clear choice; stop the conduct or face a total loss of control.
Here is how such a campaign should be conducted if another incident occurs after a clear warning. The IRGC naval and special operations facilities that launched should be destroyed. If further attacks occur, the IRGC command and control network should be liquidated along with all major military and paramilitary installations. Any further depredations should be followed by the systematic elimination of industrial and commercial facilities owned by the IRGC, which is a “for profit” institution.
To stop the attacks, the Iranian government doesn’t need to concede anything. It only needs to stop the attacks. Similarly, if it wants to stop the sanctions it must negotiate seriously about giving up its nuclear weapons and state-sponsored terrorism. The Mattis Doctrine should apply: We can be your best friend or worst enemy.
There is always the off chance that someone else is mining tankers and blaming Iran. American intelligence appears to have a good case against Tehran. Iran is not acting innocent, but if one of its many enemies should be found to be acting, we would have to come up with a different plan. However, that is very unlikely.
A signal is only a signal if the other guy receives and understands it. The message to Tehran should be simple and clear: “Change your actions or have them changed.”
• Gary Anderson lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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