All ‘quiet’ on the Middle Eastern front

Britain has been loudly demonising Iran for months. Why has it quietened down now that the Iranians have seized 15 British troops?

David Chandler

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Since the invasion of Iraq slid into debacle, the US and UK have placed increasing emphasis on Iran as a regional, and potentially global, security threat. Not only have the UK and US frequently alleged that Iran has been providing support for the Iraqi insurgency, but over the last few years there has been an increasingly fraught war of words at the UN Security Council over Iran’s nuclear programme. Concern over Iran’s nuclear threat was reflected in the Security Council’s unanimous vote on 24 March to extend the international sanctions regime.

However, it seems that using Iran as the butt of Western rhetoric about threats to international security is a very different matter from actually taking a stand against Iranian aggression. On the morning of Friday 23 March, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy forces seized eight British sailors and seven marines at gunpoint from the frigate HMS Cornwall patrolling the Shatt al-Arab waterway, a passage that demarcates the disputed border between Iraq and Iran. The response of the British government to this event was an illuminating one.

First of all, it was clear that the British sailors were neither equipped for nor looking for a fight with the Iranians. Admiral Sir Alan West, the former First Sea Lord, explained that British rules of engagement were ‘very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting… we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were, in effect, able to be captured and taken away.’(1)

Despite the comments of a senior US commander, working alongside the British-led task force, that his men would have fired on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard rather than let themselves be taken hostage, it seems that the real questions raised by the seizure are less to do with the immediate military response than with the public diplomacy which has followed.

Initially, the UK approach was that of ‘low-level’ diplomacy where representatives hoped the problem would quickly resolve itself. The commander of the Cornwall, Commodore Nick Lambert, argued that the whole incident was probably just ‘a simple misunderstanding at a tactical level’: ‘there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in Iranian territorial waters.’(2)

After the failure of more than two days of ‘quiet diplomacy’, Tony Blair and UK foreign secretary Margaret Beckett pursued a slightly more determined line that, rather than there being a mutual misunderstanding, Iran was acting unfairly. British government representatives consistently repeated that the seizure was ‘unjustified’ because UK forces were definitely in Iraqi rather than Iranian waters. Even Britain’s European Union allies, like President Jacques Chirac of France, offered Britain the ‘complete solidarity’ of the EU on the somewhat qualified basis that: ‘It seems clear they were not in the Iranian zone at the time.’ It was as if the ‘seriousness’ of Iran’s act was the violation of Iraqi sovereignty rather than a direct armed attack and seizure of British servicemen (3).

Speaking from the EU 50th anniversary summit in Berlin, Tony Blair rather apologetically expressed his hope for a speedy and peaceful resolution: ‘The quicker it is resolved, the easier it will be for all of us. I have not been commenting up to now because I want to get it resolved in as easy and diplomatic a way as possible.’ (4) Even Blair’s mild comments, about the ‘seriousness’ of the situation, concerned Downing Street, where sources denied that Mr Blair’s comments should be read as an ultimatum to the Iranians or that any sort of military option was under consideration (5).

The desire to back away from any conflict with Iran was so clear that it was perhaps surprising that only the Daily Telegraph was moved to editorialise in disgust over Blair’s lack of ‘necessary spine’ and Margaret Beckett’s softly-softly attitude. (6)

While the British media might accuse Iran of ‘bellicose posturing’ over the seizure of British sailors, it would appear that the real posturing is that of the Western states who have been happy to talk up tensions with Iran but unwilling to deal with the consequences.

The UK and US have been keen to use Iran as a whipping boy to be blamed for the strength of the Iraqi insurgency, despite the lack of any ‘smoking gun’ proof (7). The UK, US, France and Germany were also instrumental in increasing tensions through the UN Security Council with the demand for increased sanctions that have tightened international travel and financial restrictions on the regime (8). While hiding behind the UN’s authority, it appeared that Iran could be condemned, without any cost, by Western leaders seeking the moral high-ground.

It is interesting that in a real diplomatic crisis, where there is an implicit threat of military escalation – especially considering the exposed position of the US and UK in Iraq – there has been a desire to resort to ‘quiet diplomacy’ rather than rely on threats and rhetoric.

The difference in diplomatic approaches over Iran’s nuclear programme and the seizure of the British sailors undermines the assumption that high-level UN Security Council issues reflect the real security concerns or economic interests of major powers.

The current crisis with Iran suggests that genuine diplomacy works ‘quietly’ through unofficial channels while the increasingly vocal activism of the UN Security Council reflects the use of international issues as a forum for moral posturing and political grandstanding.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of Statebuilding.

Previously on spiked

In 2002 Hazhir Teimourian analysed the state of Iran’s people, politics and religion. Five years later, Philip Cunliffe was convinced that critics of Bush are more certain of an American attack than the president himself. Brendan O’Neill commented on the use of ‘doom and gloom’ language to comment on the country. David Chandler asked why the right to asylum in the UK was being transformed into the right to Western intervention. Or read more at: spiked issue Middle East

(1) Terri Judd, US troops “would have fought Iranian captors”, Independent, 26 March 2007

(2) Julian Borger, Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen MacAskill, Free our sailors, UK tells Iran, Guardian, 24 March 2007

(3) See, for example, Julian Borger, ‘Blair warning to Iran as diplomatic efforts fail to trace captured patrol’, Guardian, 26 March 2007.

(4) Christopher Hope, Blair: Iran must free naval prisoners in days, Daily Telegraph, 26 March 2007

(5) Ibid.

(6) Britain must leave Iran in no doubt of its anger, Daily Telegraph, 26 March 2007

(7) Ian Black, US and UK fail to find smoking gun, Guardian, 24 March 2007

(8) David Usborne, UN imposes extra sanctions on Iran for refusing to end nuclear activities, Independent, 16 March 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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