October 17, 2019

Iran's Eye-for-an-Eye Strategy in the Gulf

“On July 4, 1982, a car with diplomatic plates carrying senior Iranian envoys was stopped outside of Beirut by members of a right-wing Christian militia. Among the four passengers was Ahmad Motevaselian, the military attaché at Iran’s Embassy in Lebanon and a well-known hero of Iran’s war with Iraq. He had also overseen the deployment of more than a thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon four weeks earlier. Their car was later found abandoned. Iran appealed for international action—especially from the Christian militia and its U.S. and Israeli allies—to find the Iranian hostages. Nothing happened. On July 19th, gunmen abducted David Dodge, the acting president of American University of Beirut, from the campus grounds, overlooking the Mediterranean. Dodge was the first American hostage in Beirut. He spent exactly a year, to the day, in an Iranian prison. Syria intervened to help free Dodge, partly to curry favor with the United States at Damascus’s own moment of weakness.

That eye-for-an-eye exchange between Iran and the United States was the beginning of a hostage saga that sucked in more and more victims over the next decade. It also typified revolutionary Iran’s strategy in dealing with what it perceived as threats. “We always respond,” the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me on Thursday, in New York. The lesson, he said, is “don’t play with Iran.”

Since May 3rd, the United States has faced yet another round of tensions with the Islamic Republic. The two nations are again in a troubling tit-for-tat cycle. On Thursday, the U.S. Navy destroyed an Iranian drone over the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. The drone came within a thousand feet of the U.S.S. Boxer, an amphibious assault vessel, and ignored repeated communications to move away, President Trump said. “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters,” he said. “The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, our facilities, and interests, and calls upon all nations to condemn Iran’s attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce.” Roughly a third of the world’s seaborne oil is shipped via the strait, some of which falls within Iranian waters.”

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