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Seapower, Piracy, and Iran

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Thoughts on the recent USN rescue of Iranian fishermen:

To be sure, this version of the rescue represents public relations spin, but soft power often amounts to framing narrative for the purposes of public relations. The Iranians’ claim that Iran frees pirate hostages all the time without the same degree of fanfarerepresents an implicit acknowledgement of the success of the hostage rescue in this regard. The Iranians surely also understand that the logic of positive-sum seapower — that the entire world benefits from freedom of the seas — contrasts sharply with their own threats to close the Straits of Hormuz in the event of an expanded oil embargo and their warning to the United States not to deploy another aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. It can also be applied antagonistically to any Iranian attempt to follow through on those threats. Pirates are the original hostis humani generis, but states that threaten maritime freedom, especially when maritime freedom has been construed in terms of common rights and common good, can also become “enemies of humankind.”

In short, the rescue illustrates the way in which CS-21 provides an internationalist vocabulary for the pursuit of national ends. The U.S. desire to contain and confront Iran may or may not be wise, but one of the purposes of a strategic document is to provide civilian leaders with sufficiently flexible policy tools to pursue national ends. In this case, the internationalist focus of CS-21 does not constrain U.S. action, but rather reframes it in terms much more palatable to regional allies and competitors. CS-21 plays a similar role in the South China Sea, placing U.S. national ends squarely on the same side as an internationalist vision of free navigation and exploration. From the point of view of the U.S. desire to tighten the screws on Iran, the rescue could not have come at a better time.

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