U.S. Iran policy is marred by many flaws, and some of the worst are threat inflation, imperial arrogance, and hypocrisy. Alarmist media reporting routinely overstates the threat that Iran poses to the US and the world, and hawkish politicians and pundits are only too eager to use this alarmism to agitate for more aggressive policies and to scuttle ongoing diplomacy. Even when Iran behaves like a normal state and abides by international law, their actions are spun as being somehow menacing and challenging to the United States. At the same time, the US tramples on the rules of the system that it claims to uphold so that it can pursue its economic war against Iran. The economic war itself is an illegitimate policy of collective punishment that the US has been waging for the last three years in a vain bid to compel deeper concessions from their government, and after almost half a year Biden has done nothing to change that policy. If we are ever going to have a peaceful and sane policy towards Iran, all of these flaws need to be rooted out.
We have seen these flaws in action most recently in the ongoing media-fueled panic over two Iranian ships that are slowly making their way towards the Western Hemisphere, where they will probably be visiting Venezuela, and again in the reporting last month that the US sold off a shipment of Iranian oil that the US had seized off the coast of the UAE earlier this year. The two ships pose no threat to the US in any way, and they have done nothing to warrant the hawkish panic that has ensued. On top of that, the US had no right to sell the oil shipment that it seized as part of the "maximum pressure" campaign that the Biden administration has refused to end. The US presumes to dictate terms and impose coercive measures to extract concessions from targeted states in direct violation of past US commitments, and then when those tactics fail to deliver the desired results our government just steals their property.
Reports of the Iranian ship movements have been filled with the most unhinged fearmongering about a non-event. One Politico article declared that "a successful crossing would be a significant demonstration of Iran’s naval capability and potentially provide Tehran a new foothold in America’s near abroad." Referring to Venezuela as part of our "near abroad" was a revealing choice, since it suggests that a country that is thousands of miles from the United States is viewed as no more than a de facto satellite. It hardly demonstrates any great capability to sail from one hemisphere to the other, and the fact that this is the first time that Iranian ships have even bothered making the attempt shows just how ludicrous our government’s obsession with and fear of Iran is. To the extent that Iran has any "foothold" in Venezuela, it is because the US has waged relentless economic war on both countries.
Sen. Marco Rubio almost immediately latched on to the story to call for some sort of action against the ships: "There are only two reasons why an Iranian warship would travel half a world away to make a port call in Venezuela. To deliver military cargo they have sold them; to test the US by conducting joint exercises with them. We should allow neither to happen." The sheer arrogance on display in these remarks is breathtaking. The US has no right to intercept ships from another state’s navy when it is traveling peacefully through international waters, and if hawks ever meant anything they have said about freedom of navigation they would know that. The vessels might very well be delivering weapons, or they might be making a port call to show solidarity with another country that the US has tried to strangle into submission with sanctions, but it doesn’t matter. Sovereign states are allowed to trade and cooperate with one another. If the US moved to prevent these ships from reaching their assumed destination, it would be our government that was breaching international law and likely committing acts of war against Iran.
The seizure and sale of the cargo from the MT Achilleas are even more egregious examples of how the US has one set of rules for its adversaries and another for its allies and clients. The tanker was seized by the US in February, and the seizure was technically justified on anti-terrorism grounds because the US alleged that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was responsible for shipping the oil. Not only does the US presume to designate part of another country’s military as a terrorist organization, but it also believes that this gives it license to take the property of another state and then sell it off and keep the proceeds. If Russia or China had done this to a ship from a smaller, less powerful country, we would never hear the end of how it proves their revisionist designs and their contempt for the "rules-based order." When our government does it to Iran, it barely receives any notice at all. It is taken for granted that the US runs roughshod over international law whenever it wants and there is nothing anyone else can do about it. In the near term, this exposes the US to obvious charges of hypocrisy, but the longer this goes on it tears at the fabric of international law to the detriment of everyone.
A much better Iran policy would be one that respects Iran’s sovereignty and rights and that avoids interfering in its internal affairs. Instead of the neo-imperial approach of issuing ultimatums and seeking capitulation through economic pressure, the US should approach Iran with respect for their independence and an acknowledgment that they have legitimate security interests just like every other country. No one expects the Biden administration to deliver a policy like this, but ending the "maximum pressure" sanctions would be a good first step in that direction.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.