On Dec. 23, 2023, the Pentagon reported Iran had directly targeted international shipping. "The motor vessel CHEM PLUTO, a Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned, and Netherlands-operated chemical tanker was struck at approximately 10 a.m. local time today... by a one-way attack drone fired from Iran," a spokesman said. While the Lebanese Hezbollah , the Yemen-based Houthis , and Gaza-based Hamas have previously targeted shipping with drones and missiles, the Iranian leadership traditionally denies responsibility. Tehran's proxy warfare constitutes a core component of its strategy of plausible deniability.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have long viewed the Iranian navy, alongside the IRGC's external operation Qods Force, as twin pillars of Iran's force projection, especially after the 2007 decision by then-IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari to redirect the broader IRGC toward internal repression.
On July 23, 2011, Khamenei visited Iran's main naval base in Bandar Abbas and declared, "Both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the Revolutionary Guards' Navy are the symbols of the might of the Iranian nation." His visit coincided with the return of an Iranian submarine from a 68-day deployment to the Red Sea, a region his lieutenants subsequently declared within Iran's strategic boundaries.
Shortly after, the main IRGC newspaper interviewed Ali Fadavi, the head of the IRGC navy, who explained, "The military power of the United States is maritime. Naturally, the main battlefield is the sea." This is why, after President Barack Obama repeatedly offered an "outstretched hand" to Tehran, Khamenei responded by demanding that the United States must first abandon the "iron fist under the velvet glove," a metaphorical reference to the U.S. Navy. As the IRGC navy hijacked cargo ships, attached limpet mines to others, and even detained U.S. sailors, the Obama administration rationalized, falsely blamed rogues, or otherwise downplayed Iranian behavior. Their logic was that to hold Iran to account might erode support for an already shaky nuclear deal.
The lesson Iran took was not American sincerity but rather American weakness. This is why first Obama's and then President Joe Biden's outreach made the region more dangerous: Ideology and overconfidence, not water and oil, cause war in the Middle East. The Islamic republic concluded America was a paper tiger. Deterrence disappeared.
The U.S. has been here before. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. The Islamic republic initially took a beating. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's purges had decimated the Iranian military, and sanctions prevented the delivery of jet fighters that the shah had purchased in his final years. Iran also could not get spare parts for the military systems it did have. On Nov. 27, 1980, the Iranian navy launched "Operation Morvarid," a Pearl Harbor-like air and sea attack that took out the Iraqi navy. It was the adrenaline Khomeini and the IRGC needed to continue the war. To date, Iran still celebrates "Navy Day" on Morvarid's anniversary.
In some ways, though, Morvarid was a Pyrrhic victory by infusing the Iranian navy with unmerited confidence. The IRGC convinced itself it could take on the U.S. Navy, especially after the U.S. began reflagging and escorting Kuwaiti tankers. After the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine, President Ronald Reagan had enough. He ordered Operation Praying Mantis to take out Iranian oil platforms. When the Iranian navy responded, the U.S. sank five of its ships. The Iranian military learned the price of defying the U.S. Navy or attacking shipping.
It is time to reteach that lesson. The White House and Pentagon believe sporadic retaliation against Iranian proxies sends a signal, but it is the wrong one: They signal Iran can act with impunity. The Iranian regime looks down on Arabs and believes their lives are expendable.
If Biden truly wants peace, he cannot simply absorb Iranian blows. Instead, he must eliminate the Iranian navy. He should publicly warn Iranian sailors to defect, desert, or die. Navy SEALs might disable at sea Iran's already accident-prone ships. The U.S. might take offline Iran's submarine base at Jask, an isolated town far from Iran's main population centers.
Americans self-flagellate, but it was Iranian insincerity that condemned diplomacy to fail. Peace now requires meaningful deterrence. Sinking the Iranian navy would be a good place to start.
Michael Rubin is director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute..