When British forces seized an Iranian tanker bound for Syria last week, they acted out of character. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is the lamest of lame ducks. She has no mandate for action, far less military action, to enforce a European Union sanction against Syria, which was the reported reason for the action.
Those EU sanctions are against Syria, not Iran, and are about as old as ours, dating back to 2011. The ship can’t be the first to sail the long route it took — apparently all the way around Africa to enter the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar. Why this ship, and why now?
The reason isn’t that May has had a sudden epiphany that Iran is dangerous and that she should order enforcement of an EU sanction — one that the other EU nations won’t enforce — to come closer to the U.S. position on Iran. May detests President Trump, and she is still dedicated to preserving the dangerous and defective nuclear weapons agreement that former President Obama signed.
May’s view of Trump was summarized in confidential memos written by her ambassador to the U.S., Sir Nigel Kim Darroch, which were leaked to the press a few days ago. In those memos, dating back to 2017, Darroch said that Trump’s administration is “clumsy,” “inept,” and “dysfunctional.”
The reason for May’s action is far less important than the results it produces. It is a counterpoint to President Trump’s last-minute cancellation of a retaliatory strike against Iranian positions after Iran shot down one of our RQ-4 Global Hawk drones last month.
So far, the ayatollahs’ regime has called the British ambassador in for a scolding and has said that if the tanker isn’t released immediately, a British tanker should be seized by its “authorities.” As of this writing, there hasn’t been another response.
Or has there? After announcing that it had surpassed the limits on enriched uranium stockpiling, Iran has said it can enrich uranium to whatever level it chooses, another breach of the 2015 Obama deal that the European nations — Britain, France, and Germany — are working tirelessly to preserve.
Iran’s position is, as it has always been, that the Europeans need to pressure the U.S. sufficiently to give it relief from the Trump sanctions that are strangling Iran’s economy. In that, they shouldn’t — and won’t — succeed. That leaves our three “allies” with an agreement that the U.S. has renounced and that Iran is violating intentionally.
Over the past several months, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps boats have attacked other tankers with limpet mines, some of which exploded and damaged those ships. Shooting down the U.S. drone was another in a long string of Iranian provocations.
Those provocations don’t even rank as skirmishes: there’s not been any direct conflict with Iranian forces. Call it shadowboxing. The shadow is war.
Trump’s cancellation of the retaliatory strike after Iran shot down an RQ-4 Global Hawk “Broad Area Maritime Surveillance” drone puzzles many of us because there were — and are — a lot of other ways to retaliate militarily without killing a bunch of Iranians.
The measure of the effectiveness of a military action — or a decision to refrain from one — is the effect it has on the adversary’s actions. Whatever moderation of Iran’s conduct after Trump’s cancellation of the retaliatory strike was ephemeral. Coupled with the British seizing of the Iranian tanker to enforce sanctions against Syria, the two invited Iran’s public breaching of the 2015 Obama deal.
Given the fact that the Obama deal had absolutely no limiting effect on Iran’s nuclear weapons development — the deal’s inspection regime allowed Iran to place its most suspect sites off-limits to inspectors — its public breaches of the deal reveal only two matters.
First, Iran must be closer to developing nuclear weapons than the UN’s purblind nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has admitted. It’s entirely possible that Iran has nuclear weapons already, purchased from either North Korea or Pakistan.
Second, Iran evidently believes — for good reason — that nothing short of a nuclear test will be sufficient to divorce Britain, France, and Germany from the Obama deal.
Did Trump’s restraint in cancelling the retaliatory strike on Iran accomplish anything?
The only thing it may have accomplished is something we’ll never admit. One close friend — a retired Navy aviator and expert tactician — postulates that the drone may have been willfully sacrificed in an exercise in which we learned a great deal about how Iran’s air defenses work. The drone in question reportedly was a demonstrator of a capability we’ve already fielded, and it was headed for the boneyard. If we expended it in an exercise to listen closely, observe, and learn details of Iran’s defenses, that would be a trade that could yield us an important dividend if the balloon goes up.
Our political reactions to Iran’s rhetoric and intentional breaches of the agreement aren’t encouraging.
On Tuesday, three senators who should know better — Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio — sent a letter to the president advocating that he invoke the snap-back provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which gave the UN’s blessing to the Obama nuclear deal. (Obama insisted that resolution was as good as senate ratification of the deal, which is arrant constitutional nonsense.)
The problem with the senators’ letter is that they don’t understand either UNSC Resolution 2231 or the effect of our withdrawal from the deal. They cite paragraph 10 of the resolution, which lists us as a “participant.” But we are no longer a participant in the deal. The “snap-back” provisions, in paragraphs 36 and 37, say that only a “complaining participant” can trigger the snap-back. And it’s not automatic. Further proceedings by the Security Council are necessary to reimpose the sanctions.
If Trump tried to invoke the snap-back of sanctions, that action would be blocked by every other member of the Security Council.
Asking the UN to move decisively against Iran — a body that has excused Iranian aggression consistently since the ayatollahs took power in 1979 — is tantamount to surrendering action against the Iranian nuclear and missile programs to a comprehensively untrustworthy group of nations. (Anyone who doubts that statement should read — no, study — my book Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.)
Despite the UN’s record, on Friday the U.S. summoned a meeting of the IAEA’s board to consider Iran’s intentional breaches of the agreement. A U.S. statement accompanying the summons said, “The international community must hold Iran’s regime accountable.” Fat chance.
That meeting, which will accomplish precisely nothing, will be held on Wednesday. It is a gift of time to the Tehran regime, which it will put to good use to further develop its nuclear and missile programs.
From the IAEA summons and his other actions, we have to conclude that Trump is still undecided about what to do to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. He wants more time to decide and is willing to allow the UN more time to consider, reconsider, and reconsider again what the “international community” should do.
The president has often said that Iran will not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Just as often, he has said that our policy toward Iran is not regime change. It’s long past time for him to realize that the two positions are comprehensively incompatible. Without the latter, the former is impossible to achieve.