Many years ago a fascinating television drama was aired depicting human psychology in the face of terror and intimidation. Two cars were driving at night on a lonely stretch of a two-lane highway. A family on vacation in the first car was soon approached from behind by a fast-moving second car, driven by two young teenage hooligans, determined to cause trouble. Occupants in the second car immediately began harassing those in the first for no reason — tailgating the car, overtaking it suddenly and then cutting it off after pulling ahead.
Wanting more excitement, the hooligans decided to play “chicken” — i.e., turning their car around and heading straight back at the first car in the same lane to see who would turn away first. They did this many times, forcing the first car to swerve to avoid a collision. Playing the game a final time, these young hooligan terrorists revved their engine, locked on the first car’s headlights and headed straight for them. They fully expected the first car to chicken out. Yet, as the distance closed, the first car remained steady in its own lane,
refusing to yield to the second car racing towards it. Recognizing, at the last moment, the first car would not swerve, the second car did to avoid a collision, crashing as it did so. As the two hooligans took their last breath, disconcerted by the first car’s failure to swerve,
they realized they had been fooled. The family had simply abandoned their car, leaving it parked on the roadway with headlights on as they all stood well out of the way, leaving the terrorist hooligans to determine their own fate to live or to die.
A similar incident of international proportion occurred on January 6 involving three US Navy ships and Iranian “hoodlums” aboard five fast inshore attack craft belonging to the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC). Fortunately for the Iranians, there were no fatalities, but their aggressive and confrontational conduct could well have triggered a swift and devastating attack by the US ships making a split-second decision whether a perceived imminent threat exists to their safety. In the apex of the Strait of Hormuz, in international waters, at 8:00 am that day, with clear visibility, the US ships sailed in a staggered column as a formation of five fast inshore attack boats sped towards them. Only one of the five flew an Iranian flag. Approaching the Americans, the Iranians broke into two groups — one sped down the right side of the US Navy formation while the other group sped down the left.
Both groups then maneuvered aggressively towards the ships, closing to less than 500 yards. The Navy ships followed all proper international protocols in an effort to avoid an incident. Bridge-to-bridge communications were used; ten short blasts were sounded as an alarm; signal lights were flashed. No response was received. The boats were moving so fast that at times they became airborne. At one point, a boat came close enough to one ship to force it into making an abrupt turn to starboard. Another boat then maneuvered into position to place itself within the wake of the lead ship, where it proceeded to drop several small white boxes. While their contents were unknown but could well have contained explosives, the floating boxes were cautiously watched, but failed to effect a course change by the Navy formation. Further concerns arose as a heavy accented voice came across the bridge-to-bridge communications system, chiding in English, “I’m coming
at you. You will explode in a few moments.” It was at this point the Iranians probably came closest to finding themselves blown out of the water. However, the well-trained and well-disciplined Navy crews continued to hold their fire. That discipline paid off as the Iranian boats immediately broke off contact, returning to Iranian territorial
We can only guess at Iranian intentions, but it is clear they were focused on causing an incident. We can assume authorization for this outrageous conduct came from one of two sources. A former IRGC commander who has greatly empowered the IRGC as an instrument of his domestic and foreign policy, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may simply allow IRGC commanders to undertake such conduct on their own initiative; or, alternatively, Ahmadinejad authorized it directly. In either case, it demonstrates a senseless disregard for international custom and tradition at sea — a practice at which the Iranians are becoming more and more adept. Not only is this evidenced by its aggressive acts in seizing several British sailors last year in international waters but it is evidenced too by earlier acts against US ships exercising rights of passage. One incident last September
involved two US warships firing warning shots across the bow of harassing IRGC boats — a difficult thing to do without hitting a target so small and moving so fast. But, again, it was Navy training and discipline that demonstrated to these hoodlums they were getting too
close. The aggressive conduct of the IRGC boats stopped immediately after the warning shots were fired.
One possible motivation for this most recent incident might be the recent trip by Ahmadinejad to a number of leading Arab states — the same states soon to be visited by President Bush. Perhaps it is an effort to intimidate these Arab leaders by Ahmadinejad demonstrating his defiance against the Americans.
Just like the fictionalized story of the family confronting young hooligans foregoing acceptable conduct in favor of aggression seeking to intimidate others, the IRGC navy acts similarly against coalition forces. They may believe each time they undertake such conduct, they can crank up the level of intimidation without cost. Should this continue, they may soon learn even a well-trained and well-disciplined Navy has its limits. A split-second decision to act in self-defense in the future may well extract the ultimate price from Iranians who have crossed too far over the line in their efforts to intimidate. They too will determine their own fate to live or to die.