One of the most famous incidents in U.S. history of the early West was the 1881 shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Marshall Wyatt Earp and his two brothers, along with the infamous Doc Holliday, got into a gunfight with five members of the Clanton-McLaury gang. The former represented “law and order” in the town; the Clantons and McLaurys — cattle rustlers, thieves and murderers — represented just the opposite. The shootout determined who would control Tombstone.
While questions remain as to who shot first, the fight lasted 30 seconds during which time approximately 30 rounds were fired. When the shooting stopped, three gang members were dead; the remaining two headed for the hills. Earp’s two brothers were wounded but recovered.
All the elements of a similar confrontation — this one on an international level — are shaping up in the Persian Gulf. It involves the U.S. and/or Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies responding to a challenge from Iran.
The Iranians have dispatched a cargo ship to Yemen, where Tehran has been providing weapons to anti-government Houthi rebels. This ship, purportedly carrying humanitarian supplies, is being shadowed by both U.S. and Iranian warships. Headed for the Yemeni port of Hodaida, Tehran warns against any effort by the international community to stop and search the ship’s cargo.
The U.S. has requested Iran submit the ship to U.N. inspection at Djibouti where relief supplies to Yemen are being distributed. Iran refuses to do so.
Tensions will mount the morning of May 21st as the cargo ship enters the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea.
Two issues are at stake here.
First, is the cargo ship really ferrying humanitarian supplies or is Tehran saying so as a subterfuge for re-arming the rebels?
Second, if the supplies are humanitarian, should the Iranians receive a free pass to send uninspected cargo ships by their mere representation of same?
Undoubtedly, Tehran is playing a chess game here. As the cargo ship approaches Yemen, the question of whether one side or the other is bluffing as to its true intentions will become clearer.
Tehran wants to know whether the U.S. and/or Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are willing to provoke an international incident by stopping the Iranian cargo ship. As part of its bluff, Tehran has sent two warships in a show of strength.
This leaves the next move to the U.S. and/or Saudi Arabia. If they back away from stopping the ship, it is checkmate Iran. However, if they do stop it, the next move reverts back to Iran—i.e., its willingness to initiate military action to prevent the inspection.
If Iran chooses to act militarily and a U.S. response is generated, Tehran will pay a heavy toll. If it is Saudi Arabia making the response, the outcome is not so certain.
Iran’s uncertainty as to whether its ship will be stopped has probably led it to pack humanitarian rather than military supplies into it. This way, should Tehran opt not to initiate military action when stopped, allowing the inspection, it can then play the victimization card suggesting its intentions were always humanitarian.
If the U.S. or Saudi Arabia decides not to stop the ship, they enable Iran to establish a precedent for avoiding inspections. It will not take long for Tehran to capitalize on the precedent by quickly packing cargo ships with military supplies for the Houthis.
Over a century ago, the Earps clearly understood law and order turned on a willingness to confront the bad guys. Will we recognize this tomorrow?