To Show Our Resolve, We May Have to Sink an Iranian Ship

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This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Two almost simultaneous events in recent days have shed even more light on the Obama administration’s treatment of America’s enemies.

In Cuba, a Marxist, pro-Russian, anti-American tyranny, the administration pressed hard to abandon decades of policy in exchange for nothing. Human rights conditions there are awful, but the United States did not bargain to end the embargo in exchange for improvements.

And since Barack Obama’s announcement of a new policy, which was a simple free gift to the Castros, human rights conditions have deteriorated further.

The most recent event was the first commercial flight to Cuba in decades, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara. Santa Clara is the residence of Guillermo Fariñas.

Who is Fariñas, and why does he matter? He is one of Cuba’s bravest human rights advocates, a recipient of the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament in 2010.

Among other things, the citation says this:

A Cuban doctor of psychology, independent journalist and political dissident, Guillermo Fariñas has over the years conducted 23 hunger strikes with the aim of achieving peaceful political change and freedom of expression in Cuba....

For his activism, Fariñas has in recent years been threatened with death and confinement in a psychiatric hospital, beaten and hospitalised, and repeatedly arrested and detained, including at the funeral of Oswaldo Payá, another Sakharov Prize laureate and Cuban dissident.

09_09_Cuba_Iran_01 Cuban political prisoner Guillermo Fariñas, currently on a hunger strike in protest of Cuba's imprisonment of political dissidents, talks on the phone next to his daughter Diosangeles at his house in Santa Clara on July 29, 2010. Elliott Abrams writes that when a commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba landed last week, the Obama administration celebrated it but has not said one word about Fariñas. Nor has any American diplomat sought to visit him. Enrique De La Osa/reuters

Fariñas has been on hunger strike for more than 50 days and was hospitalized on September 5. I write of all this because when that JetBlue flight landed last week, the Obama administration celebrated it—but has not said one word about Fariñas. Nor has any American diplomat sought to visit him.

(And by the way, that flight was chock-full of journalists, as the website Capitol Hill Cubans points out, and not a single one of them (or the foreign correspondents from Havana who went to Santa Clara) sought to visit and speak with him. They were too busy celebrating, it seems. Capitol Hill Cubans quotes Martin Luther King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”)

Meanwhile, half a world away, the Iranian navy is making a laughingstock of the U.S. Navy, taunting it with small-boat actions that endanger our ships, get within about 100 yards of them and have forced them to take evasive action to avoid collisions. Reuters reported:

A U.S. Navy coastal patrol ship changed course after a fast-attack craft from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps came within 100 yards (91 meters) of it in the central Gulf on Sunday, U.S. Defense Department officials said on Tuesday. It was at least the fourth such incident in less than a month. U.S. officials are concerned that these actions by Iran could lead to mistakes.

One U.S. Navy official said, “This type of incident would have led NAVCENT to recommend that the State Department deliver a diplomatic message of protest if this interaction had been with a country with which the United States had an official diplomatic relationship.” Wrong: The time for a “diplomatic message of protest” is long gone.

Here’s an August 25 report from The New York Times:

Iranian naval boats made dangerous maneuvers around United States warships in the Persian Gulf area on at least four occasions this week, Pentagon officials said Thursday, including one episode in which the Americans fired warning shots from a 50-caliber deck gun to prevent a collision.

It was unclear whether the confrontations — one near the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday and three in the northern Persian Gulf on Wednesday — were deliberate efforts to send a hostile message about American naval activity….

The Iranians came within about 300 yards of the Nitze before veering off, Commander Raines said. Unsure of their intentions, the Nitze changed course several times to try to keep a safe distance from offshore oil rigs in the area.

“We assessed the interaction as unsafe and unprofessional due to the Iranian vessels’ not abiding by international law and internationally recognized maritime rules of the road, as well as their high rate of closure of Nitze and disregard of multiple warnings by the ship’s whistle and flares,” he said.

And of course all these incidents this summer follow the January capture of 10 American sailors.

But the Times is dead wrong: It is crystal clear that these confrontations were deliberate efforts to send a hostile message. It is crystal clear that Iran is showing the world, as it did in January with the sailors’ capture, that the United States no longer runs the Gulf and is in fact afraid of Iran.

What has been the American response? What has the White House decided? To do nothing, and to tell the Navy to bob and weave and duck.

The administration remains committed to its nuclear deal above all and is willing to allow these dangerous and humiliating maneuvers against the Navy without reply. It is engaged in covering up Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal, denying them and allowing secret exemptions. Meanwhile, Iran increases its presence and activity in Iraq and Syria and uses the nuclear deal to build its economy.

It would be easy to show the Cuban regime, and the Cuban people, that we care more about freedom than JetBlue; all that was required was a visit to Fariñas. Still, the Obama administration won’t do it, refusing to undermine its message that Cuba is changing and is our new friend.

It is not so easy to show the world that we are not cowed by Iran and that our Navy will not be abused by the Iranian navy; that will actually require sinking an Iranian vessel. But here again, the administration will not undermine its message that the nuclear deal will bring peace and moderation.

So it will be up to our next president to distinguish between friends and enemies. If he or she wants to send the world a message that the Obama era is over and America is back, visits to Cuban dissidents like Fariñas, and one sinking of an Iranian ship that is illegally and dangerously harassing a U.S. Navy vessel, would be the best and likely the cheapest way to do so.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.