In the 19th century era of ‘Jingo Jim’ Blaine and his proteges, the United States was sometimes accused of carrying out ‘gunboat diplomacy’, where our warships would sail into the ports of small nations and impose our will on them by the threat of the powerful guns. Usually the objective of this was to separate those nations from the influence of the European colonial powers, or encourage them to follow a particular political course, or to impose order to create an environment hospitable to American business interests. At a time when naval vessels were expensive and naval technology was advancing rapidly, American ships were often so powerful relative to the military resources of fledgeling nations that they posed a threat which could not be challenged or ignored.
Now in a peculiar reversal of that bully tactic, Iran’s very limited navy has once again taken threatening action towards the US fleet operating in the Persian Gulf. This isn’t exactly an isolated incident. Armed Iranian speedboats regularly track and observe US shipping and military vessels passing through the Straight of Hormuz in international waters. Usually they maintain a reasonable distance and make limited radio contact, but in the most recent incident they weren’t satisfied with just observing and decided to ‘buzz’ the US vessels in a more threatening way. While a speedboat might normally not be considered threatening to a warship, in light of the USS Cole attack and other examples of land-based vehicular suicide bombing, the speedboats do represent at least some sort of potential threat. They could hold an awful lot of explosives and if a bunch of them rushed a US ship at the same time some might get through and do a lot of damage.
Since the USS Cole attack US ships have been equipped with weaponry specifically designed to prevent attacks from smaller vessels, including surface to surface missiles and heavy anti-personnel guns. What’s remarkable about this recent incident is that the US vessels involved showed such restraint and merely warned off the threatening Iranian boats rather than blowing them out of the water, which may well have been justified.
Although speedboats might be a theoretical threat to warships, realistically they aren’t much of one, and these boats seem not to have carried explosives or any kind of armament which could do much damage. Their harassment of the US fleet seems to have been almost entirely a hollow, symbolic threat, though whether it was officially authorized or just an excess of nationalistic zeal on the part of Iranian sailors is unclear.
As the situation in Iran becomes more volatile because of external pressure, more extreme measures have become necessary for the mullahs to retain control over the country. They can only maintain power through oppression for a finite time and need to address the nations problems which may not be possible without foreign cooperation. To get that cooperation they need to deal with the United States. An incident like this serves them in two ways. It reminds their people of the outside threat posed by the US, from which only their government can presumably protect them, thereby increasing loyalty through fear. It also builds national confidence and makes the government look strong and fearless so that if they do negotiate with the Great Satan they can appear to do so from a position of strength.
The explanation for this posturing may lie with recent statements by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who seems to be softening his position somewhat on reopening limited diplomatic contact with the United States. Given the position of the theocratic government in Iran and growing dissatisfaction in the Iranian population, if the government were to enter into negotiations with the US, it would be very beneficial to do so from a position of strength. Manufacturing an incident where it looked like the powerful US Navy felt threatened by Iran’s coastal speedboat patrols, might help create the impression within the country that Iran is heightening aggression toward the US, making it look like any future negotiatons came from more of a position of strength. This interpretation seems even more likely in light of the latest aspect of the story where Iran is attempting to make the US look even weaker by accusing us of faking the threatening comments on the video of the incident, a charge which the Navy clumsily or perhaps deliberately helped to legitimize with their ambiguous response.
This may have been an example of ‘speedboat diplomacy’, the flipside of Jim Blaine’s gunboat bullying. They thumbed their noses at us. We filed an official protest acknowledging that we had been annoyed. They can propagandize that as a victory and feel more secure in maybe making some inevitable concessions in the diplomatic arena without appearing dangerously weak. We play along because we can afford to humor them if it leads to improved relations and some diplomatic progress.
Sometimes a crisis like this is not what it seems and may be a sort of convenient and cynical collusion between the two parties involved, leading towards a mutually beneficial outcome while avoiding an appearance of weakness for the weaker party.