Michael Rubin: Iran-Backed Rebels Are Attacking U.S. Ships

U.S. Navy Fire Controlman 1st Class Jorge Correa scans for threats on the guided-missile destroyer "USS Mason" in Bahrain, on September 1. Michael Rubin writes that on at least two occasions and possibly a third, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched missiles at the "USS Mason," which is stationed near the Bab al-Mandab, one of the world’s most perilous maritime choke points. The "USS San Antonio" has also come under attack. U.S. Navy/Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Janweb B. Lagazo/Handout via REUTERS

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On at least two occasions and possibly a third, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched missiles at the USS Mason, a destroyer stationed near the Bab al-Mandab, one of the world's most perilous maritime choke points. The USS San Antonio has also come under attack.

After the second incident, the USS Nitze fired Tomahawk missiles at three coastal radar sites. The Pentagon called them "limited self-defense strikes," more a symbolic action than one designed to punish those responsible.

It seems that there is a reluctance on the part of the White House, State Department and Pentagon to blame Iran for orchestrating the attacks. This despite the fact that Iran seems clearly responsible for providing Yemen's Houthis with anti-ship missiles and training the militia in their use. (While Yemen has always been awash in weaponry, anti-ship missiles seldom played into tribal conflicts in its deserts and mountains.)

The questions then become not only how, but against whom, should the United States retaliate? Does waiting a day or two before hitting a Houthi radar site sufficiently deter new incidents? Alternately, is the best path to peace simply to turn the other cheek to forestall a cycle of violence?

Here, history informs:

In 1993, Islamist militants led by blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman bombed the World Trade Center in New York City. The United States did not respond. Al-Qaeda then attacked two U.S. embassies in east Africa. The Clinton administration responded with cruise missile strikes against a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory allegedly involved in the production of VX nerve gas as well as the Taliban's intelligence headquarters in Kabul. Those strikes, like the ones against the Houthi radar, were more symbolic than effective.

In 2000, Al-Qaeda struck the USS Cole off Aden where it had been refueling as part of a deal that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made to pump money into the Yemeni economy. The Clinton administration did not respond to that bombing, but Al-Qaeda nonetheless struck New York and Washington, D.C., the following year.

The notion of turning the other cheek might strike American policymakers as sophisticated, but American adversaries often see that as weakness to exploit.

The United States also has a checkered history of responding to Iranian involvement in the death of Americans. Iranian authorities never paid a price for the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy (and their continued occupation of that facility), nor did the United States retaliate against Iran directly for the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing.

In 1996, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps masterminded an attack on a U.S. Air Force barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. An FBI investigation found Tehran to be responsible, but the Clinton administration called off any retaliation once Iranian President Mohammad Khatami began speaking of a "dialogue of civilizations."

Iran never paid a price for smuggling explosively formed projectiles to its militiamen in Iraq, an activity that killed hundreds of Americans. Most recently, the Obama administration declined to respond to a Qods Force plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in downtown Washington, D.C.

The United States has only engaged Iran militarily once: In 1988, after an Iranian mine struck a U.S. ship, President Reagan ordered U.S. forces to retaliate against an Iranian oil platform in Operation Praying Mantis. U.S. forces warned their Iranian counterparts of the looming strike so as to minimize casualties. Rather than evacuate the platform, the Iranian military engaged. The result was a decisive defeat. Iran avoided provocations against American targets for several years afterward and certainly gave the U.S. Navy a wide berth for more than a decade.

Back to the present: Simply turning the other cheek—whether against Islamist militants or against state sponsors of terror—does not bring peace. Sometimes, the best path to peace is by convincing the masterminds of terror that the buck stops with them and the price they will have to pay for targeting American forces is too great for them to bear.

Operation Praying Mantis-Part II may soon become inevitable.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.