The cat and mouse game playing out in the waters of the Middle East has profound consequences, not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world. It’s part of the clash of civilizations, whether the West likes it or not — the mullahs in Tehran against the Katzenjammer Kids in the White House. It’s not yet clear who’s the cat, and who’s the mouse, but the mullahs think they know.
The mullahs are pushing hard to consolidate a growing control over the region by seizing the initiative, nautical mile by nautical mile, from the U.S. Navy, which succeeded the British Royal Navy as the monarch of the seas after World War II. A few days ago two Iranian merchant ships, carrying arms to their Houthi tribal friends in Yemen, were observed sailing in these troubled waters. The Pentagon immediately dispatched an aircraft carrier, presumably assigned to intercept them. Someone, almost certainly someone at the White House, tipped the news that despite United Nations sanctions against the Yemeni rebels, the Americans would not board the ships to halt the arms cargoes.
Apparently as confused as the rest of us about what American policy might be, the little Iranian flotilla turned tail and headed home. The sight of an American carrier is impressive.
Nevertheless, aggressive elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who seem to be managing events while everyone is distracted by the negotiations with President Obama in Lausanne, ordered the seizure of two American commercial vessels, sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. Spokesmen at the State Department had to be reminded that a treaty, convenient or not, obligates the United States to protect Marshall Islands ships and their seagoing cargo. It would hardly take someone with the wisdom and discernment of Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz or Henry Kissinger to figure out what the mullahs are up to.
With both the American negotiators and the mullahs having cried from the rooftops that the Lausanne negotiations are aimed only at halting the production of Iranian nuclear arms, Iran is free to proceed on other fronts to achieve domination of the region. Having assumed control of Syria, furnished missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon and arms to Hamas in Gaza to replace those destroyed by the Israelis, Iran is going for the jugular: dominating three of the most important choke points in the region’s waters.
The two merchant ships were taken in the Strait of Hormuz, a passage connecting the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea that is so narrow that ships must pass through Iranian and Omar territorial waters to carry a quarter of the world’s oil to market. Yemen, whose port of Aden was once one of the most important on the British lifeline to India, overlooks the Bab-el-Mandeb, a strait separating the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. It’s so narrow that artillery set up on the Yemen side could control passage. Couple that with a growing guerrilla war in the Sinai Peninsula bordering the Suez Canal, and it’s not difficult to see what the admirals in Tehran are thinking.
The U.S. Navy now has fewer ships than at any time since the end of World War II, and as powerful as some of those ships are, one ship cannot be in two places at once. Threats to the freedom of the seas are growing, and American ships and American cargo are increasingly at risk. Barack Obama is determined “to lead from behind.” No one seems to know what that means, unless it means that Mr. Obama will answer any threat with another speech. Evil men, who abound in the Middle East, are gambling that it doesn’t mean anything.