Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. That’s not the point. Even if Iran did attack a couple tankers in the Gulf of Oman – as the Trump team assures us it did – there’s no reason for a war. As I’ve written repeatedly, war with the Islamic Republic would be ill-advised, illegal, and immoral. It simply isn’t necessary. Wars of choice should be avoided at all costs. Besides, the U.S. has a nasty habit of pointing to alleged naval provocations as a justification for aggressive wars. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard not to assume the worst and mistrust the official story from Washington.
Remember the Maine! On February 15, 1898, the US battleship exploded in Havana harbor while showing the flag in Spanish-held Cuba. The press and the government immediately blamed Spain and the result was war. The problem is that most experts now agree that the explosion was likely an accident and Spain had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, the US embarked on an imperial "splendid, little war" that spanned the globe from Cuba to the Philippines. And, while the US quickly triumphed in the rather lopsided contest, it eventually bogged down in a decade long repressive counterinsurgency in the Philippine Islands. Thousands of American soldiers died along with hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.
Then there was the Gulf of Tonkin affair. In August of 1964, the USS Maddox was allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. President Lyndon Johnson used the provocation to escalate US military involvement in South Vietnam. The result was 58,000 dead American soldiers and a few million Vietnamese deaths in an ultimately futile war of choice. The problem is that at least the second reported incident appears to never have happened at all. What’s more, American military and intelligence services had long been waging an illegal campaign of raids on radar stations, bridges, and other coastal targets in North Vietnam. In that sense, the initial North Vietnamese attack on the Maddox can be understood as defensive rather than aggressive. Nonetheless, LBJ simplified the rather complex events and used them to push through Congress a blank check for war in Vietnam. Only two senators opposed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The rest is history.
The point is that the United States has a sordid history of using alleged naval attacks as a rationale to embark on foolish and offensive wars. This track record alone ought to invite a healthy dose of skepticism about the official story from Washington. That doesn’t mean jumping to panicked conclusions and buying into conspiracy theories about false flag attacks. Rather, it should give us pause before starting a war on account of a couple damaged foreign oil tankers. Combat should always be a last resort, even if the US seems to have forgotten that over the last 18 years of forever war. Unless undertaken in national defense or in response to genuine threats to vital strategic interests, war should not be a serious option. Nothing Iran may or may not be up to in the Persian Gulf reaches that threshold.
Let us assume, then, that Iran was responsible for the attacks, after all. This still demands an understanding of the full context of the events. No doubt, Iran had the capability to sink the vessels, but didn’t. This implies that the attacks were likely a warning to US allies, that yes, America can impose brutal sanctions on Iran, but that the Islamic Republic, too, can affect the global economy and the free flow of Gulf oil. After all, the US is, arguably, engaged in veritable economic warfare against Iran, and threatening outright war on the daily. This despite the fact that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons and was – according to our own intelligence services – adhering to the Obama-negotiated nuclear deal. Can anyone really blame Iran for acting out and taking arguably defensive action in its geopolitical neighborhood?
The problem is that Americans seem inherently incapable of walking a mile in other countries’ shoes and considering the view from Tehran. A fair account of U.S.-Iranian relations over the last 70 or so years demonstrates that Washington was, more often than not, the aggressor. The CIA toppled a duly elected nationalist prime minister in 1953, replacing him with a brutal royal dictator. The US backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his brutal invasion of the Islamic Republic from 1980-88 and even accidentally shot down a Iranian civilian airliner killing hundreds. For this, President Bush the elder refused even to apologize. Few Americans remember this unsavory history, but I assure you that few in Iran can forget it.
That said, now is a time for measured caution, to take pause before jumping to conclusions or taking hasty action. The opposite course rarely ends well as we saw in Cuba and Vietnam. There is still merit in diplomacy, that seemingly lost art. If Trump wants to be a true maverick, he’d override his more hawkish Iranophobe advisers – think Bolton and Pompeo – and use the tanker incidents to reset the relationship with Iran. Don’t count on it though – it seems the Donald will do anything that undoes Obama-era policies. It’s a pathology, after all, and it may even cause another unnecessary war. Stay tuned!
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen