Friday, March 30, 2007

The Reluctant Apologist For An Odious Regime

Another day, another post about the ongoing situation in the Gulf, where 15 British sailors are still in Iranian custody. It's a pretty lonely furrow to plough over here on the left side of blogtopia. Yesterday there were exactly two left of center blogs on the memeorandum aggregator talking about this subject - me and Shakespeare's Sister.

I know the PurgeGate hearings and the meta-scandal surrounding them are a necessary documenting of the Bush administration's pernicious malfeasance and I know the Senate's move to put a timetable on the occupation of Iraq is an important moment in challenging Bush's misadventures. Blair has his problems too, not least the chance of being led from Downing Street in handcuffs over the "Cash for Peerages" scandal. But does anyone really think any of those issues - or indeed the chances of a Democratic presidential nominee who doesn't jump on the bandwagon - will survive the storm of jingoism and nationalism that will accompany any war with Iran? This is just the latest in a series of attempts to cloud the facts with a narrative for war. It needs more attention from progressives than it is getting.

Then again, that's been broadly true of everything to do with Iran in the past couple of years. I've seen progressive pundits - major names - blithely accept the Bush/Blair narrative on Iran over its nuclear program and it's alleged interference in Iraq, without even seriously trying to research these subjects. The neocons have had an easy sell of their narratives leading to war with Iran - not on the merits of the narrative or on any hard evidence but on the basis of an incident which is now over 25 years old. The seizure of the American embassy in Teheran colors everything, the great insult to America. (An insult, mind you, that accomplished nothing material. America is still a superpower and Iran will always be a comparative minnow.)

Which brings me to my own position - a Brit writing in America for a largely American audience. I'm not infected by the atavistic need to wipe out that long-ago insult and I'm a natural critic. Show me a glib case for just about anything and I will drop into Devil's Advocate mode, pointing out logical inconsistencies or bringing up counterfactuals. I've thus found myself in the position over the last two years of being a reluctant apologist for a regime in Iran I personally find abhorrent. It's a theocracy disguised with some democratic trappings, even the moderates aren't moderate at all by my usual standards and it violently represses it's own people in their free expressions of greivance or dissent. None of which are reasons to go to war with Iran rather than any number of other similiar regimes.

Yet the narratives surrounding Iran's nuclear program don't prove that Iran has done anything illegal or that it has a nuclear weapon program, let alone that it intends using nukes if it ever developed them. Ahminajad isn't a Hitler because he isn't the real leader and in any case he's term limited to 2013. Evidence for Iranian meddling in Iraq is circumstantial at best and often entirely fabricated by groups who want the US to change the Iranian regime by force so that they themselves can be the new dictators. I can't sit idly by and watch such a rush to war with Iran on false pretenses even if I do find the Iranian regime odious. So I've spoken out. I'm not always happy about it, but it's the way I tick. That's meant I've been one of the few writing on these issues and has meant some good traffic for Newshog when things like the Baghdad Briefing blow up and everyone in the progressive blogosphere is casting around for someone who has been following the matter. (I'm not complaining about the traffic, far from it, but I'd gladly exchange it for an informed US progressive community that could speak out knowledgeably against a rush to war under false pretences.)

I'm especially not happy about the current crisis, in which that emotionally charged word "hostages" is being freely bandied about so as to evoke that long-ago insult to American honor. Iran's only possible serious point has been made - that it can assert and then defend it's territorial sovereignty against all comers. It could so easily be left at that, with a bit of diplomacy, as I suggested yesterday and Craig Murray suggests again today. Murray, who was a career diplomat and UK ambassador until he fell out with Blair over the latter's condoning of torture, also adresses the key question of the current crisis - where are the borders. Murray notes:
There is no agreed maritime boundary between Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf. Until the current mad propaganda exercise of the last week, nobody would have found that in the least a controversial statement.

Let me quote, for example, from that well known far left source Stars and Stripes magazine, October 24 2006.

'Bumping into the Iranians can’t be helped in the northern Persian Gulf, where the lines between Iraqi and Iranian territorial water are blurred, officials said.

"No maritime border has been agreed upon by the two countries," Lockwood said.'

That is Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Lockwood. He is the Commander of the Combined Task Force in the Northern Persian Gulf.

I might even know something about it myself, having been Head of the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1989 to 1992, and having been personally responsible in the Embargo Surveillance Centre for getting individual real time clearance for the Royal Navy to board specific vessels in these waters.

As I feared, Blair adopted the stupid and confrontational approach of publishing maps ignoring the boundary dispute, thus claiming a very blurred situation is crystal clear and the Iranians totally in the wrong. This has in turn notched the Iranians up another twist in their own spiral of intransigence and stupidity.

Both the British and the Iranian governments are milking this for maximum propaganda value and playing to their respective galleries. Neither has any real care at all for either the British captives or the thousands who could die in Iran and Basra if this gets out of hand.
Playing to the peanut galleries in order to bolster political positions at home that have fallen on hard times certainly seems to be all that is left in this affair. How else to interpret Iran's release of obvious propoganda video and letters that scream "I was told to write this"? How else to interpret Blair's incredibly condescending statement about how to talk to Iran as if its leaders were recalcitrant children?

And the media is utterly failing to be a Fourth Estate. So deeply rooted is the prejudice against Iran that it's case of continued British incursions into its territory is ignored entirely, as are Iranian complaints of a British armed incursion at it's consul in Basra. Yet it isn't just "fairness" that dictates Iran's side should not be ignored, for understanding both side's greivances might actually pave the way to a resolution which keeps the 15 sailors whole and healthy in a way that ratcheting up the confrontation may not.

First and foremost, I want my countrymen home safe. I really don't care if Blair and the Iranian leadership have to sacrifice some of their macho and some of their respective political posturing to make that happen. However, the longer this affair goes on the more I worry that what both sides are really interested in is their own political ends essentially unconnected to this matter. It's a convenient excuse for both sides, nothing more - and 15 British sailors are in danger of being the price for those excuses.

Update Maybe it's that fabled British sense of "fair play" which drives me to play Devil's Advocate. There are a couple of examples of that quality, which foreigners always claim is a British peculiarity but we don't really see ourselves, in the UK press today.

First, Ronnan Bennett at The Guardian points out that while Iran's treatment of the UK's sailors so far is wrong, it isn't in the same league as UK and US abuses:
Turney may have been "forced to wear the hijab", as the Daily Mail noted with fury, but so far as we know she has not been forced into an orange jumpsuit. Her comrades have not been shackled, blindfolded, forced into excruciating physical contortions for long periods, or denied liquids and food. As far as we know they have not had the Bible spat on, torn up or urinated on in front of their faces. They have not had electrodes attached to their genitals or been set on by attack dogs.

They have not been hung from a forklift truck and photographed for the amusement of their captors. They have not been pictured naked and smeared in their own excrement. They have not been bundled into a CIA-chartered plane and secretly "rendered" to a basement prison in a country where torturers are experienced and free to do their worst.
Then comes Rupert Murdoch's London Times, which despite having run some very belligerent editorials and op-eds feels compelled to give both sides a fair shake in a news article today:
Britain’s case
The Royal Navy were boarding a ship in Iraqi waters when Iranian patrol vessels ambushed them
Evidence provided
On Sunday, a helicopter flew over a vessel anchored in the Gulf and photographed its position recorded by satellite device. This showed a point 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters. Britain says that the ambush happened here
Evidence missing
The boarding team had communications equipment broadcasting their position back to HMS Cornwall. The Ministry of Defence has declined to provide computer printouts.
Possible holes
— The timing has changed. On Friday the MoD said that it happened at 10.30am. By Wednesday, it said that communications went dead at 9.10am.
— The boarded vessel has changed. Early reports described it as a dhow or Arab sailing craft. The MoD says it was a cargo ship.
— The Iranians have shown footage of the boarding team getting off a dhow
— Iraq at first backed Iran. Brigadier-General Hakim Jassim, in charge of Iraq’s territorial waters, said on Saturday: “We were informed by Iraqi fishermen that there were British gunboats in an area that is out of Iraqi control.” By Wednesday, Iraq backed Britain.
— The MoD says that debriefing of the helicopter crew indicates that the team was ambushed leaving the merchant vessel. But the helicopter had flown back to the Cornwall

Iran’s case
The British boats entered Iranian waters six times.
Evidence provided
Televised and written confessions by Faye Turney, a boat driver
Evidence missing
Although Iran claims satellite equipment on the seized boats proves the British entered their waters, data from the machine has yet to be produced.
Possible holes
— Leading Seaman Turney’s admissions are unspecific, stilted and use language reminiscent of brainwashing or coercion
— Iranian diplomats originally provided coordinates to Britain claiming to prove the Royal Navy entered their waters. After Britain pointed out the compass references showed a spot in the Iraq’s sphere, Iran changed the reference
— An Iraqi fisherman insisted to Reuters that the British had been searching a ship in Iraqi waters

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