british sailors 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Ever since the British sailors and marines crisis erupted six days ago upon their abduction by Iranian forces, both sides have been steadfastly maintaining that this an isolated incident, a local dispute, whose solution is to have no effect on any of the other outstanding issues between both countries.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that the capture "should have absolutely no bearing at all" on other issues, a position echoed by the Iranian Embassy in London, whose spokesman announced that "this legal and technical issue has no link to any other."
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was relieved to hear this, saying on Wednesday in Parliament that the Iranians "have also assured us that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues, bilateral, regional or international, which I welcome."
Hearing the official statements on both sides, you wouldn't think that Britain and Iran are on opposing sides of what is potentially the next major international conflagration. It's just like the immortal chapter of the classic British sit-com Fawlty Towers in which the deranged hotel manager Basil Fawlty incessantly reminds his staff before the arrival of a group of German guests, "whatever you do, just don't mention the war."
The reality, of course, is just the opposite. The Shatt el-Arab incident is inherently connected to the two major bones of contention between the two countries, Iranian aid and guidance to the Shi'ite insurgents currently fighting against US and British forces in Iraq and continued Iranian defiance of the international demands that it desist from the uranium-enrichment stage in its nuclear development plans.
The fact that the abduction took place only a few hours before the United Nations Security Council voted on a new round of sanctions against Iran is no coincidence, nor is the fact that the official newspaper of Iran's Revolutionary Guards had written only a few days before that they were capable of capturing Western troops, just as the US Army had captured five senior Guards officers in Iraq, suspected of working together with the insurgents.
The capture of hostages has been standard operating procedure for the Islamic Republic for over quarter of a century whenever it is faced with international pressure - a tactic also used by Teheran's Lebanese proxy Hizbullah, as we saw yet again last summer.
The Iranians hope to use the 15 British personnel as another bargaining chip in their high-stakes poker game against the US-UK front. Iran hopes that the hostages' plight could drive a wedge between the two allies, (Washington has been markedly silent over the case) and cause yet more domestic trouble for the Blair government, already deeply unpopular for joining the US-led coalition in Iraq.
So why the charade? Why is everyone pretending that such an obvious ploy has nothing to do with the wider picture? The Iranians, as adept as they are at playing up to the Western media, have chosen their moment with care. An unofficial war is already being waged between the two sides within Iraq, with the US frantically searching for the "smoking gun" of Iranian complicity it can present to the world.
The Bush administration is trying to add pressure against the nuclear program, while the media and the administration's critics in the US and Europe are accusing Bush and his advisers of spoiling for another Middle East war. The Iranians are trying to force the hand of Bush's biggest ally.
Blair and his bruised Labor government are especially vulnerable to accusations of going to war under false pretexts. He has reaffirmed a number of times over the last few months his commitment to finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute.
Blair is set to resign in three months. He is yet to publicly say he regrets the decision to join the US in Iraq, but he is fully aware of the fact that his cherished legacy is tainted by the war in the eyes of the majority of Britons. The last thing he wants it to be forced into an new escalation just before leaving office.
Neither is his almost certain successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, looking forward to the same kind of predicament that has bedeviled Blair's last four years in power. Foreign policy is not seen as his strong suit and he knows that another unpopular war could finish his chances of being reelected. The Iranians seem to have timed their move with almost perfect precision.
The hostage-taking might yet turn into a blunder, however, giving the US and even the reluctant UK just the opportunity they were looking for to turn the tables on Iran. But right now, the efforts being made to isolate the incident and not use it to build a more resolute front against Iranian aggression seems prove that the mullahs' gamble is paying off.
This week's US Navy exercise in the Persian Gulf is a clear signal to Iran that even with its ground forces bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has sufficient naval power to launch a massive attack.