Opinion: The Danger of Connecting Iran Nuclear Deal with Attacks on U.S. Warships

October 20, 2016 9:58 PM
USS Mason (DDG-87) fires an SM-2 during a March 2016 exercise. US Navy Image
USS Mason (DDG-87) fires an SM-2 during a March 2016 exercise. US Navy Image

This is the first of two opinion pieces examining the Iran nuclear deal and the recent attacks in Yemen.

The recent spate of Yemeni Houthi rebel anti-ship missile attacks in the strategically important littorals near the Bab el-Mandeb strait, have drawn America’s attention to Yemen’s bitter civil war.

Like seemingly everything else in the current American news cycle, these incidents in the Red Sea have been shaded by the current political atmosphere. The incidents included a successful 1 October missile attack on the UAE leased ship HSV Swift, and two or three similar unsuccessful attacks against the USS Mason (DDG-87) in the days that followed. On Oct. 13, USS Nitze (DDG-94) launched a retaliatory strike against the Houthi’s coastal surveillance radar sites that CENTCOM believes were used to provide the missile targeting. Apparently these retaliatory strikes were not enough to prevent or deter a possible third attack on the Mason on Saturday.

Early analysis indicates that the anti-ship missiles used were likely Chinese-designed C-802, or the Iranian-manufactured Noor version of the missile. While there is highly probable that the missiles used were supplied to the Houthi’s by Iran or an Iranian proxy (e.g. Hezbollah is known to possess the C-802), the suggestion by some that these incidents may be inferentially connected to the lifting of sanctions on Iran, or a weakened US foreign policy, are harder cases to make. An examination of the historical context of Yemen’s latest civil war, and some recent examples of Iran’s troublemaking in the region suggests that these missile shots would have likely occurred with, or without, any benefits Iran might have received from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement or a different U.S. foreign policy.

First, a brief examination of Yemen’s history shows that on its best days in the past 100 years, Yemen was a nation simmering just below the boiling point. The area of the Arabian Peninsula, referred today as the nation state of Yemen is a region that has been as violent, unstable, and divided as Europe’s former Yugoslavia. In the post-WWII era, Yemen has been divided along sectarian religious and tribal lines more often than it has been a unified nation. It is this inherent weakness in the cultural fabric of Yemen that led to the overthrow of President Saleh’s government in 2011.
With that in mind, those who suggest that the Houthi’s were somehow enabled by an enriched post-nuclear deal Iran, and/or a weakened U.S. foreign policy are overlooking the fact that this latest Yemeni civil war between Zaidi Shia backed Houthi and Sunni backed Yemeni government forces began in August of 2009. The capital of Sana’a fell to the Houthi’s in March of 2015, and the nuclear deal with Iran was agreed upon in July (four months later). The chronology of the conflict and the history of the recent civil strife in Yemen clearly shows that any link to the nuclear deal is a flawed point of comparison. This disconnect between the timing of the Iran deal and the Houthi rebellion leads to the second point.

While it is a fact that the chronology of events does not show any conjectural link between the nuclear deal and Iranian backed proxies gaining ground in Yemen, what it does show is that Iran was still determined to support its historic allies and proxies in the region even while Iran was living with the implied threat of being branded as part of the “axis of evil,” and while bearing the full weight of international sanctions. For example, in July of 2006 Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces fired two probable C-802 missiles from a location in coastal Lebanon. The first missile struck and sank an Egyptian cargo ship, and the second missile hit the Israeli navy ship INS Hanit. Israel was unaware, until the Hanit incident, that Hezbollah possessed such weapons. Many defense analysts were similarly surprised this month when the Houthi’s managed to get at least seven anti-ship missiles off the rails in a ten-day period.

For the sake of this narrow debate on whether or not the Iran nuclear deal, or claims of weak US foreign policy, has anything to do with the recent attacks, the example of the 2006 attack on the INS Hanit shows that Iran was able to supply its proxy forces with sufficiently capable tactical weapons. Hezbollah received C-802 missiles and many other weapons, even when sanctions were in place, US foreign policy was clearly hostile towards Iran, and the U.S. military presence was at peak strength in the region. Despite these conditions and restrictions Iran was not deterred.

The JCPOA deals with one specific problem—it prevents Iran from building a nuclear device for 10-15 years. It does not set conditions for a geopolitical re-orientation of Iran. Proponents of the deal hope that over time Iran will reform its often troublesome behavior at home and abroad. The effectiveness of the deal in achieving its stated objectives can, and should be debated, but to try and link every incident and accident in the region with the Iran deal for expedient political points at home is misguided. It is misguided because it potentially makes the region even more unstable and overlooks the many merits of the JCPOA.

Few, if any, proponents of the JCPOA ever expected immediate progress in Iranian human rights abuses, and its support of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Rather, a gradual improvement was the most realistic expectation, and there are some encouraging signs that this is happening. For example, there is a growing demand for improved social programs and infrastructure by the Iranian people, and the consistent election of the most moderate candidates allowed to run for office. These trends show the existence of a strong undercurrent in Iranian society that desires reform.

The creation and marketing of the idea that the Iran nuclear deal would suddenly cause Iran to alter every long term relationship and alliance, as unpleasant as many of them are to the West, is a straw-man argument crafted by opponents for the sole purpose of derailing the deal. Iran has been supporting its allies since 1979, when they stopped being our principal ally and had to begin fending for themselves.

Iran’s economy has indeed benefited from the end of sanctions and while that could lead to increased support for its proxies and allies the only honest answer right now is—perhaps. After all, Iran was causing problems for Israel during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, it was supplying Bagdad’s al Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq while US forces were there, and it has been supporting their Shia kin in Yemen for decades. These are separate and distinct problems that exist and each requires a different solution. Fortunately, because of the JCPOA, these smaller scale conventional problems are taking place without the threat of nuclear escalation.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

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