“They must know that we will protect our ships, and if they threaten us, they will pay a price.”
With those words, President Ronald Reagan justified his approval of Operation Praying Mantis, a day-long engagement in which U.S. Navy and Marine forces delivered a powerful response to the Iranian assault of the USS Samuel B. Roberts. A hidden Iranian mine had struck the frigate in the open waters of the Persian Gulf on April 14, 1988. No sailors died, but several were injured and the ship was severely damaged.
Operation Praying Mantis remains the largest surface battle engaged in by the U.S. Navy since World War II, and its outcome was decisive. According to official reports released afterward, using a combination of anti-ship missiles, naval gunfire, and aircraft launched from several ships, including the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise, the Navy destroyed two oil platforms used by Iran for intelligence collection, sank 4 small Iranian Navy boats, sank an Iranian frigate, and severely damaged another Iranian warship.
But that was all on April 18, 1988. Back when the United States believed in delivering swift, decisive responses to enemy provocations.
Fast forward to January 12, 2016 and the Iranian military seized two U.S. Navy patrol boats and their crews when, from what we know, one of the boats had an engine failure while transiting the open waters of the Persian Gulf. The pair of tiny boats appear to have drifted close to an Iranian naval base on an island in the Gulf.
After holding the sailors hostage, Iran returned them and their boats the following day.
Make no mistake, this was not a one-off incident in which Iran honestly felt threatened by the presence of two small boats designed for coastal and river operations. The guns on the pair of U.S. boats are completely inadequate for sinking a ship. This event was the next step in an escalation of incidents and provocations on the part of an Iranian regime interested in flexing its muscle in order to show the world that even the United States must at times bow to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In December, Iran fired a missile near – but not at – the USS Harry Truman, an aircraft carrier operating in the Gulf (video here).
The Obama Administration’s response to the capture of American service members was remarkably quiet. Unwilling to draw attention to the situation, President Barack Obama didn’t even mention the tense situation in his State of the Union Address to Congress, delivered just hours after the sailors were captured.
Early on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Iran for releasing the imprisoned sailors so soon, offering this gem of insight:
“As a former Sailor myself, I know the importance of naval presence around the world and the critical work being done by our Navy in the Gulf region.”
According to one New York Times writer, who was no advocate of Republicans during the 2004 presidential election which saw Kerry unsuccessfully challenge President George W. Bush, Kerry wrote in 1986 that he volunteered to serve in the Navy during the Vietnam War because, “When I signed up for the Swift boats, they had very little to do with the war. I didn’t really want to get involved in the war.”
Kerry joined the Navy after he couldn’t secure another education deferment.
Republican presidential candidates shouldn’t throw around Reagan’s name, and claim his mantle, in an effort to avoid a substantive discussion of their own positions. But when it comes to the Iranian capture and release of American sailors, GOP presidential candidates would do well to remind American voters that there was a time when assaulting a U.S. Navy ship resulted in very, very grave consequences.
As it stands now, Iran can safely expect to face nothing more than verbal outrage in response to its actions.