Analysis: Iran exposes Britain's weakness

The response to the sailors' abduction proves how difficult it is for the West to face the threat Ahmadinejad's regime poses to the free world.

ahmadinejad smiles 88 (photo credit: )
ahmadinejad smiles 88
(photo credit: )
Who won this latest round between Iran and the West? With the 15 British sailors and marines kidnapped on March 23 on their way home, apparently without any major concessions having been awarded to the Iranians (though some could well have been made behind the scenes,) it would seem that the British policy of increasing diplomatic pressure through the United Nations and the European Union and not offering the Iranians anything for the captives' release worked. On the other hand, the mullahs have gotten away with piracy on the high seas, thumbing their nose at the United States's closest ally. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed almost magnanimous when he announced his country's Easter "gift" to Britain, and then receiving (on camera) protestations of gratitude. But Ahmadinejad also succeeded at a more fundamental level. The British and American response to the sailors' abduction proved how difficult it is for Western powers to face the threat his regime poses to the free world. Exactly four years ago, the victorious coalition armies were closing in on Baghdad, Saddam Hussein had gone into hiding and the White House was chalking up another rogue nation that had undergone regime change. Iran seemed increasingly likely to be the next one on the list. Initially, the Iranians took fright and tried to conciliate the superpower. There was talk of delaying and even canceling their nuclear program, and Iran-gazers were confident that a new and pragmatic government would soon take over in Teheran. Instead, Ahmadinejad was elected, the Islamist hardliners purged reformist elements from the administration, nuclear development was accelerated in the face of UN blustering, Hizbullah was authorized to attack Israeli cities and the Revolutionary Guard was tasked with masterminding the murderous Shi'ite insurgency in Iraq. Both US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are aware of the acute danger Iran poses to world peace and Middle East stability, but neither has the credibility or public backing to launch another military campaign. While Bush, in the last quarter of his presidency, still officially has the power to strike at Iran - and many still believe that he might do so before leaving office - Blair, who is planning to vacate Downing Street in three months, is another story. Throughout this hostage crisis, the Iranians have read the British perfectly. The timing and content of press releases, the footage of the captured sailors and marines, the female sailor's statements and the other officers' admissions of guilt all played on the deep distrust the British public feels toward a government it believes dragged the country into a bloody war under false pretexts. According to a poll in the Sunday Telegraph, 26 percent of Britons actually wanted their government to apologize to the Iranians and secure the release of the abductees. Only 7% believed that Britain should respond with a military operation. The reluctance to act and the lack of outrage in the public and most of the mainstream media (The Independent went so far as to blame a botched US snatch operation for the Iranians' action) certainly left its mark on the administration's policy. Blair was careful not to mention any forceful tactic and his aides downplayed remarks that might be construed as threats. Britain in the twilight of the Blair era is clearly in no condition to participate in another campaign, and there is no indication that Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is expected to succeed Blair, has any interest in doing so once he grasps the reins of power. The sailors' capture also managed to drive a wedge between the two allies, with the UK sending quiet messages to the White House to keep out of the crisis in the belief that the US could only exacerbate tensions. It is interesting to speculate how the Bush administration might have reacted had the Iranians abducted US servicemen. It is almost unimaginable the Americans would have been so patient, preferring quiet diplomacy to military pressure. By capturing British sailors, the Iranians were going for the weaker link. The 15 abductees might be going home after a traumatic ordeal, but their safe return will only serve to heighten criticism of the American and British military presence in Iraq. Iran has proved just how vulnerable they are.•