Saturday, March 31, 2007

Update - Day 8 of UK Sailors Held By Iran

It's now day 8 of the detention of 15 British sailors seized by Iran and there is no obvious end in sight. Any realistic and rational reason Iran might have had for their capture - for instance, asserting and defending what they believe to be their borders - has become overshadowed by mutual distrust and sabre-rattling. Here are the latest developments.

Yesterday you may have read in the rightwing media (and on a lot of US rightwing blogs) that the capture was "pre-planned". Well, it turns out that the source for that story is none other than the neocon's favorite terror group, the utterly-nutterly Mujahedeen e-Kalq. Nor do they have any actual evidence for the claim, which didn't faze the conservative noise machine one bit. Mind you, it never has before. The MeK have been the primary group responsible for producing vaseless claims about Iran's secret plans which always turn out to be complete crap but always enter the extreme right's lexicon as gospel truth.

And if you've read today the many reports that there's about to be a show trial in Iran, then again the media and rightwing bloggers are jumping the gun in their zeal to find excuses for war. The Iranians say the original story was caused by an error in translation by a Russian news agency. Reuters, translating directly from the original Farsi, quotes the Iranian ambassador to Russia as saying "If there is no guilt they will be freed but the legal process is going on and has to be completed and if they are found guilty they will face the punishment." That's worrying enough, but it's hardly a declaration that a trial has already begun.

Then there's the news that US State department spokesman Sean McCormack has ruled out a deal to exchange the Brits for for five Iranians seized by American forces in Iraq. Um, hello? There's been absolutely no indication from Iran that such a swap was even a remote wish. Classify this one as unreasonable spin of the story de jour in pursuit of the White House's agenda. It's dangerous and unhelpful at a time when both Iran and the UK seem to be playing dumb political games of their own.

Which is where the best analysis of the day begins. Julian Borger, the Guardian's diplomatic editor, writes:
A former ambassador to Tehran, Sir Richard Dalton, appeared on the BBC expressing surprise at the government's tactics and suggesting that it had allowed "anger at the way the sailors are being treated" to get the better of it, and had played what may be its strongest card - going to the UN security council - too early.

He was giving voice to four years of experience in Tehran and knowledge of how chaotic its multi-polar government can be and how slowly wheels turn, virtually grinding to a halt over the fortnight-long no rouz (new year) holidays. Sir Richard could also have been channelling the frustrations of his former colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who feel they were bumped into an early escalation by a gung-ho prime minister, under pressure from the rightwing media.

The near consensus in the foreign office is that, in the ceaseless struggle for the ear of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the pragmatists and internationalists ultimately win out over the hotheads, particularly if there is a risk of Iranian isolation.

...Since Mr Blair announced the start of a "different phase" on Tuesday, and the severing of government-to-government contacts on Wednesday, the situation has clearly worsened. Britain's weakness at the UN was demonstrated by the watered-down statement issued by the security council.

Meanwhile the Iranians withdrew an offer to release Leading Seaman Faye Turney and provide consular access to the remaining captives. Ari Larijani, Tehran's lead negotiator on international affairs, blamed the setback on the British government's "miscalculation" and "arrogance" in making a "ballyhoo" over the affair.

However, it may also be a mistake to take Mr Larijani at his word. The former Revolutionary Guard officer may have simply been using British diplomatic manoeuvres as a reason for failing to fulfil a pledge the Guard had no intention of honouring in the first place.
Borger's contention is that the Iranian shifting stance is a function of internal political feuds between hardliners and more moderate elements, and that British "tough talk" is simply handing the hardliners a club to bash the moderates with.

It's an analysis that the folks at Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity agree with. In their assessment of the current situation, they write:
The frenzy in America’s corporate media over Iran’s detainment of 15 British Marines who may, or may not, have violated Iranian-claimed territorial waters is a flashback to the unrestrained support given the administration’s war-mongering against Iraq shortly before the attack.

The British are refusing to concede the possibility that its Marines may have crossed into ill-charted, Iranian-claimed waters and are ratcheting up the confrontation. At this point, the relative merits of the British and Iranian versions of what actually happened are greatly less important than how hotheads on each side—and particularly the British—decide to exploit the event in the coming days.

There is real danger that this incident, and the way it plays out, may turn out to be outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s last gesture of fealty to President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and “neo-conservative” advisers who, this time, are looking for a casus belli to “justify” air strikes on Iran.

...The increasingly heavy investment of "face" in the UK Marine capture situation is unquestionably adding to the danger of an inadvertent outbreak of open hostilities. One side or the other is going to be forced to surrender some of its pride if a more deadly confrontation is going to be averted.

And there is no indication that the Bush administration is doing anything other than encouraging British recalcitrance.

Unless one’s basic intention is to provoke a hostile action to which the US and UK could “retaliate,” getting involved in a tit-for-tat contest with the Iranians is a foolish and reckless game, for it may not prove possible to avoid escalation and loss of control. And we seem to be well on our way there. If one calls Iran "evil,” arrests its diplomats, accuses it of promoting terrorism and unlawful capture, one can be certain that the Iranians will retaliate and raise the stakes in the process.

That is how the game of tit-for-tat is played in that part of the world. What British and American officials seem not to be taking into account is that the Iranians are the neighborhood toughs. In that neighborhood, they control the conditions under which the game will be played. They can change the rules freely any time they want; the UK cannot, and neither can Washington.

Provocative behavior, then, can be very dangerous, unless you mean to pick a fight you may well regret.
Picking a fight you may very well regret is, of course, the biggest talent of the neoconservatives. They are quick to point out that the US Navy would never sit idly by while their sailors were detained and wonder why the UK did so. I'm not sure...maybe it has something to do with how successful the neocon tactic proved to be in Lebanon last Summer?

But sabre-rattling, whether we like it or not, is the name of today's game on both sides. And as Kevin Drum points out, the moves are being made to potentially take this crisis beyond diplomacy. "We're sure putting a lot of naval firepower into a very small area where there are currently no particular naval threats."

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