News has broken that Iran’s military has captured two U.S. Navy vessels and is holding 10 American sailors. The details of the capture and what caused it are still sketchy, but the Iranian government has assured the White House that the sailors are safe and unharmed as of the time of this writing. The two Navy vessels were named as riverine patrol craft (no confirmation on this or the exact type), and the sailors are allegedly being held on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. It is unknown whether the boats strayed into Iranian waters.
So a whole lot of unknowns, with the only facts being that the sailors and craft are in the hands of the Iranian military. All of this came just hours (9 p.m. EST) before U.S. President Barack Obama was scheduled to give the final State of the Union address of his administration. Speculation is flying, some suggesting that the capture is the work of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who are looking to scuttle the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the Iranian government. There is also speculation (unfounded and unconfirmed, although the pictures being shown of the vessel do look like a Mark V SOC) that the U.S. military personnel were SEALs or other special operations personnel on either a real-world or training mission.
So what now? Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets are already doing the, “See I told ya so! #irannukedeal” dance. (Senator Tom Cotton is saying just that—repeatedly—on news shows as I write this.) Many more are screaming for immediate and direct military intervention. But what might realistic options to get our sailors and boats back look like?
In order to better understand that, we need to first look at what past options have yielded us, and if history offers any lessons that can be applied to the situation. The First Barbary War (1801–1805) between the United States and the four North African Muslim states known collectively as the Barbary States (made up of Morocco, Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis), came as the result of pirates from the Barbary States seizing American merchant ships and holding the crews for ransom, then demanding the U.S. pay ransom to the Barbary rulers. Not surprisingly, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay up.