‘Evil’ Iran vs a British mum

The outraged reaction to the Iranian TV footage of Leading Seaman Faye Turney exposes Britain’s impotence after Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The images of Navy Leading Seaman Faye Turney shown on Iranian TV last night have been widely condemned. Seaman Turney and 14 other members of a British naval patrol were seized for allegedly crossing into Iranian waters last week. The TV images showed Seaman Turney wearing an Islamic veil and confessing to having violated Iran’s sovereignty; the other Seamen were shown eating and talking in a nondescript room. ‘HOW DARE THEY’ bellowed this morning’s Sun, accusing Iran’s mullahs of ‘humiliating our troops’. (The paper went so far as to label the ‘video nasty’ a ‘war crime’, which makes you wonder what isn’t a war crime these days.)

For me, the image of Seaman Turney captures something of Britain’s world image today. Looking understandably nervous, and having allegedly written a letter in which she flags up being a mum and states her desire to return home, Turney’s image has been beamed around the world, somewhat patronisingly, as a snapshot of vulnerability. And the stand-off with Iran has done nothing if not expose Britain’s own vulnerability – its post-Iraq lack of punch in world affairs, and the hollowness of its claims to moral authority in the Middle East. Fifteen Navy Seamen may have been taken by Iranians from their boat launched by HMS Cornwall, but Britain’s international reputation looks close to being sunk.

The arrest of the Seamen has shown up Britain’s impotence on the world stage. It has demonstrated that while Britain may be keen to talk the talk ‘over there’, it is far more reluctant to walk the walk. That explains why British officials seem to have altered their tone over Iran since the 15 Seamen were arrested. Over the past two years, ministers have been loudly denouncing and demonising Iran as a potentially nuke-armed threat to world peace; yet since the arrest of 15 of their own Seamen they have become far more muted. Britain seems more comfortable with firing off moral postures against ‘evil regimes’ from the safe plush bunkers of Whitehall than with having a fairly minor physical stand-off with these alleged evil regimes.

When it was a matter of slating Iran from afar for allegedly trying to build nukes, the British were among the loudest critics of the Iranian regime. In late 2005 then foreign secretary Jack Straw said the ‘nuclear crisis’ triggered by Iran would be ‘resolved by all facilities available to the international community’ – codeword for sanctions and possibly even airstrikes. Since the arrest of the 15 Seamen, however, British officials have been much more quiet. Initially they said little of note, and the story sunk to page nine in the papers. Now they denounce the footage of the Seamen as ‘unacceptable’. The altered tones over Iran show that Britain’s foreign policy is mostly sound and fury, loud noises that allow Britain to pose as a defender of virtue and justice without actually having to defend these things in the real world.

Much has been made of the claim that prime minister Tony Blair is ‘upping the stakes’ against Iran. What has this amounted to? The revelation of aerial images which apparently show that the Seamen’s boat was 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters in the Persian Gulf, not in Iranian waters. Britain is also calling on the United Nations to condemn Iran’s actions. These moves are revealing. Far from sabre-rattling over ‘evil’ Iran’s wicked seizure of troops, the British try to present themselves as a technically wronged party whose Seamen were sailing in waters they had a right to be in. And instead of threatening any kind of action against Iran – the use of those ‘facilities’ discussed by Straw in 2005 – the British seek the moral authority of the UN with which to force Iran’s hand. It shows how isolated and damaged Britain has become since the Iraq war. For all the claims that Blair and Bush are the cowboys of international affairs, in fact Blair, lacking much moral authority of his own, desperately requires the cover of the UN in his stand-off with Iran.

Britain’s diminished role is reflected in the coverage of the stand-off, too. The press seems outraged that the Iranians have treated British soldiers like, well, soldiers. Turney is referred to everywhere as ‘a British mother’, as if she wandered into Iranian (or Iraqi) waters by mistake while shopping at a Middle Eastern branch of Iceland. ‘A British mother paraded on state TV’, says the Daily Mail; ‘Let mummy go’, said the Sun, imagining what Turney’s three-year-old daughter might be thinking. This ‘mummy’ has been in the Navy for nine years. Some claim the Iranians are behaving scandalously by pushing Turney to the front of their propaganda videos; it could be that they are exploiting the British media’s transformation of Turney over the past week into the nation’s Victim Mum.

The treatment of Turney is not only patronising (and borderline sexist) – it also reveals a shift in perceptions of the British military. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran, British soldiers seem to be discussed as mums, dads, sons or daughters. When a soldier is killed in Iraq, the headlines tend to say ‘Father-of-two blown up in Basra’; now Turney is a mummy lost in the Middle East. The British military abroad is seen less as a collection of soldiers on a mission and more as a group of vulnerable individuals at the mercy of others. Unable to justify HMS Cornwall’s presence in the Gulf in explicitly political terms – as a necessary measure to keep the peace or deliver democracy – the reaction to the seizure of the Navymen focuses instead on their individual vulnerabilities, their life stories, their desires to return home.

The Iranian captive crisis has provided some striking snapshots of Britain’s standing: its isolation post-Iraq; the emptiness of its foreign policy; a view of the military as victimised, vulnerable. The affair shows Britain is the loudmouth of international affairs – it talks big, but it lacks the strength or coherence to back the talk up. At the same time Iran is also acting from a position of weakness. Certainly this fairly minor incident cannot be compared to the hostage crisis after the Islamic revolution, when Iran held captive 66 American diplomats and citizens for 444 days between 1979 and 1981. That was an expression of revolutionary fervour, a powerful snub to the West – and it contributed to Jimmy Carter’s loss of the presidential election in 1980. This latest capture is more like a desperately opportunistic attempt by Iran to gain some leverage in its relationship with the West. It is the exhaustion of the Islamic revolution that gave rise to this hostage crisis.

Both Britain and Iran seem all at sea. Theirs is little more than a phoney war, a battle of the postures in which ‘a British mum’ seems to be the prize.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

David Chandler wondered why Britain, after months of demonising Iran, has gone quiet over the kidnappings. Brendan O’Neill explained why so-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are an empty fear. Mick Hume diagnosed a bad case of imperial impotence regarding America’s failure to perform on the world stage. Nicholas Frayne said that for all the controversy over Iran’s elections they’re no throwback to ‘79. Or read more at: spiked issue Middle East

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

Topics Politics


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