The theocracy of Iran is America’s implacable enemy. For decades, a bedrock American policy has been to contain Iran’s employment of political pressure, sedition, and proxy forces in order to emerge as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region. Since 2018, sanctions have prohibited the export of Iranian oil until that country ceases its nuclear weapons program. But that canon of containment is breaking down.

An estimated 70 foreign vessels were illicitly transferring Iranian oil in 2020; today, that number stands at 322. Four years ago, illegal oil exports by this so-called “ghost armada” were estimated at 500,000 barrels per day; by 2023, it had doubled to one million barrels per day.

On March 10, 2022, U.S. law enforcement seized the oil cargo of two “ghost fleet” tankers, worth about $38 million. On March 2, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed explicit sanctions upon 20 of those 322 vessels in the ghost armada. A week later, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran after a rupture of eight years. Obviously, Saudi Arabia is hedging against the erosion of American power. Then on March 23, a Shiite militia group fired missiles into a U.S. base in Syria, killing an American contractor and wounding several U.S. soldiers. In retaliation, two U.S. aircraft struck back. Only after that strike did the U.S. press learn there had been 78 such attacks in Syria by Iranian-backed militias in the last several years.

On April 27, Iran retaliated to protect its ghost fleet. In a heliborne raid, Iranian marines seized a massive supertanker as large as an aircraft carrier, with a carrying capacity of 1.5 million barrels of crude oil, three times the value of the oil cargo seized by the U.S. the previous year. The shipment of Kuwaiti oil was purchased by Chevron and destined for unloading in Houston. Iran took video that was shown on nation-wide television. Here in the U.S. mention of the seizure appeared only in financial news.

The U.S. Navy complained that Iran had seized five commercial vessels in the past two years, to include the employment of mines on two occasions. “Iran's continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional waters,” the U.S. Navy said in a statement, “are a threat to maritime security and the global economy.” Unimpressed, on May 3 Iran seized another supertanker. In response, the U.S. Navy released video from a drone showing a dozen small craft herding the tanker to an Iranian port.

Given the seizure one week earlier, our navy had sufficient warning to position armed drones, aircraft, and ships. Our navy commander should have requested permission to open fire on the small pirate craft, while avoiding the tanker. Had that request been made, the president would decide publicly, yes or no. The U.S. Navy took instead video, acting as a de facto flack to publicize Iran’s brazen coup.

For seven decades, our navy has been the guarantor of commerce and safe passage in international waters. Now our navy does nothing when Iran indulges in open piracy. Iran is gaining control of the Persian Gulf.

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