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Are We Swift-Boating Iran's Small Boats?

01/13/2008 04:14 pm 16:14:23 | Updated May 25, 2011

A fun mental exercise for foreign policy enthusiasts: watch a Republican debate. Now hit your stopwatch and see how long it takes for one (or all) to bring up World War III or Hitler. Usually it's a matter of minutes. If you're lucky, someone just might bring up the "gates of hell."

According to the Republicans vying for the Oval Office, Iran was lucky we didn't bomb them back into the Stone Age last Sunday. "I think one more step and they would have been introduced to those virgins that they're looking forward to seeing," Fred Thompson said, to the chuckle of the South Carolinians in the audience.

Say what? First, this is an insane reaction to an incident whose details we know little about. The Iranians -- even their despised Revolutionary Guards -- are not al-Qaeda and to lump them into the same camp as suicide bombers is akin to pinning 9/11 on Saddam.

Second, this is not unusual. While yes, many wars do seem to ignite from attacks against U.S. naval vessels at sea, as the Council on Foreign Relations' Walter Russell Mead points out in the Wall Street Journal, let's not get worked up over nothing. Ships passing through the Persian Gulf fire warning shots all the time. The U.S. navy even admitted the little white boxes discarded from the Iranian vessel posed no threat. And the channel used by local ships is accessible to any renegade radio troll within a hundred miles who wants to shout Don Imus-like obscenities over the air.

Third, remember 1988. That is when U.S. warships sank an Iranian frigate and shelled two Persian Gulf oil platforms near the Strait of Hormuz in response to a mine attack against the USS Samuel B. Roberts, an American frigate. A few months later, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial jet carrying 290 passengers and crew. The American government says it mistook the plane for a military fighter jet but has always refused to apologize or admit any wrongdoing. Yet even this encounter did not spark World War III.

Finally, the Strait of Hormuz is not Haifa Street, where you have junior or mid-level NCOs making split-second decisions to pull a trigger that could have strategic-level consequences. Rather, on the high seas there is a very rigid set of rules of engagement and protocols of the right of innocent passage regarding the use of flares and warning fires. Those who give the orders to engage are very senior level. That said, the navy captain need only determine that an oncoming ship shows hostile intent, as he will not want to take the first hit. Ships have a right to anticipatory self-defense, as it were. As one Pentagon official told me, no captain has ever been fired for defending his ship but some have been relieved of their command for showing laxness.

So what's the takeaway from this incident? Probably nothing will change insofar as U.S.-Iranian relations are concerned. This will not scotch the limited progress made with the Iranians on Iraq. Nor will it help those moderates in either Washington and Tehran pushing for greater rapprochement. Like Vegas, what happens at sea between us and Iran will likely stay at sea.