Austin Bay

Why would five Iranian speedboats bluff an attack on a U.S. Navy squadron?

Start with a big fact: Under the mullah-led thieves' regime, Iran has become an explosive political mix of ethnic, economic and ideological fragments, a mosaic powder keg.

The Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution failed, then fossilized, leaving a corrupt junta of robed kleptocrats who use the dictator's classic tools of murder, terror and economic favoritism to control an impoverished, splintered and increasingly restless populace.

Moreover, factions within the mullahs' hierarchy spar with one another. Throwing a risky punch at the United States or Great Britain serves two distinct purposes. Armed bravado directed at "the Great Satan" and British imperialists appeals to Iranian nationalists -- at least, it has in the past. Khomeinist radicals, like Iranian president Mahmoud Amadinejad, contend that confrontation with the United States also strengthens them.

The reasoning may appear convoluted, wickedly Byzantine, but if Iran's domestic malaise continues to get worse, and domestic tensions seed violent street demonstrations, the most radical Khomeinists apparently believe dramatic attacks on U.S. forces -- such as the destruction of a U.S. Navy capital warship -- enhance their political position. Their willingness to run great risks demonstrates they are "the true believers." An extended confrontation with the United States also gives them the opportunity to portray their domestic opponents as traitors -- and then kill them.

This week's round of Iranian "gunboat diplomacy" by five armed Revolutionary Guards' speedboats fulfills both political purposes, and comes as U.S. President George Bush prepares to visit the Middle East. The incident echoes the March 2007 kidnapping of British sailors and marines who were patrolling Iraqi waters in small, inflatable boats.

Both incidents fit into a consistent historical pattern, one the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Ledeen believes the U.S. government ignores at its own long-term peril. "It is never surprising when the Iranians attack us," Ledeen told me the day after the gunboats' display of moxie, "because they have been attacking us for 30 years."

The best long-term U.S. strategy is political and economic -- encouraging an active domestic political opposition to Iran's clever religious leaders while whittling away at the clerics' graft-crammed Swiss bank accounts. This incremental strategy, however, takes time and perseverance.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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