The Region: Once Britain ruled the waves. Now Iran does

Imperialism has switched directions, running now from East to West.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Why is Iran being so aggressive? Why is Britain being so weak? And what is the wider meaning of Iran's seizure of 15 British navy personnel from Iraqi waters in this new hostage crisis? It is no accident that Teheran is doing everything possible to humiliate Britain. The two countries' political cultures are not only out of sync, they are operating on different timelines altogether. Britain and the West may no longer believe in imperialism, but Iran - along with most Middle East regimes, opposition movements, and publics - does. Remember the War of Jenkins' Ear? In 1731, Spanish sailors boarded a British vessel in Spanish waters (which it was entitled to do), and cut off the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins of the Rebecca, which they were not. It was one cause of a war between the two countries. And in 1862, after the murder of a British merchant in Japan went unpunished, the British navy bombarded the capital of the warlord responsible. Many other, similar incidents could be mentioned. In those days, the Western powers were far stronger than those of what we nowadays call the Third World. Britain and France - and more occasionally Germany, Italy, and the United States - were ready to remind tyrants of that fact. Sometimes, this leverage was used for ethical or at least reasonable purposes; other times, it was employed for the sake of greed and territorial acquisition. Innocent people were indeed hurt in such retaliations. BUT IF in, say 1807 or 1907, an Iranian ruler had dared trample unbidden on the decks of one of his or her majesty's ships - he would have been made to feel very sorry about it. Or as the poet James Thompson wrote about the time that Jenkins was becoming aurally challenged in his poem, "Rule, Britannia!": Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame: All their attempts to bend thee down, Will but arouse thy generous flame; But work their woe, and thy renown. That flame was literal, coming out of the cannon's mouth. This era is long gone, and to a large extent that is a good thing. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far into a failure to appreciate that power and force are often required, especially against "haughty tyrants," an apt description of Iran's rulers. After all, Britain was so touchy for a good reason, or in Thompson's words: "The nations not so blest as thee, / Shall in their turns to tyrants fall." In other words, if you aren't tough when you meet aggressive and extremist enemies, you will end up as one of those tyrants' meat. THE TURNING point, of course, was in 1956. Who better embodied that fight against haughty tyrants than Anthony Eden, perhaps even more than Winston Churchill? Eden raised the call to battle against the fascists in the 1930s and warned tirelessly against where appeasement was leading. It was Eden who as prime minister in 1956 secretly worked with France and Israel to overthrow the Middle East's new - and it turned out archetypal tyrant - Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Egyptian ruler had nationalized the Suez Canal Company and was beginning the long process of stirring Arab nationalist passions and subverting less extreme Middle Eastern regimes that continues to be the core of Arab politics down to this very day. For so conspiring, Eden was reviled and driven out of office. Yet, in retrospect, wouldn't it have been better if Eden's effort had succeeded? And isn't there some parallel between Eden and Prime Minister Tony Blair - a man who, whatever his mistakes, has striven to uphold the cause of freedom against forces which make Nasser look mild in comparison? What is this latest incident in retaliation for? The mutilation of a sea captain, or murder of a merchant on his way to appreciate the beauties of a Japanese temple? No, the British navy personnel were taken hostage in retaliation for the arrest of Iranian government-sponsored terrorists caught in the act in Iraq. From the Iranian side, of course, humiliation of the West is precisely the goal. Iran is not, moreover, striving for equality, but superiority for its own side. It wants to show, as the revolution's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once famously said, that the United States and the West in general "cannot do a damn thing." It is the radical Islamists (and remaining radical Arab nationalists) who want to show that they are the ones with the "gunboats," or rather hijacking airplanes, to keep up with current technology, who can make explosions in Western cities without fear of suffering meaningful retaliation. In contrast, the West seeks to prove that it is nice. It seeks to apologize, to make reparations, to act as the weaker party. But, you see, the West is running the equivalent of a school for Middle Eastern politicians, intellectuals and revolutionaries. And the lesson it is teaching them is: You are strong and we are weak; you have ideas to believe in, we merely seek maximum comfort and expediency; if you hit us we will yield or look the other way; we are ready to confess our wrongdoing, you only speak of your being absolutely in the right. Like good students, they follow what they are being taught. MEANWHILE, imperialism has switched directions, running now from east to west. And if that is already so without nuclear weapons controlled by Teheran, what do we have to look forward to? At least up to now, the gap in power that leaves the West the weaker side has not been technological, but rather psychological. It isn't just a matter of gun-power, either, for the West refuses to use a force as potent as the battleship or aircraft carrier - its economic might. But economic, as well as military, supremacy is being conceded to the extremists and the dictatorships. And thus, British navy personnel - like American diplomats a quarter-century ago - are seized and their government is to be made to apologize. The woman among the prisoners is forced to wear an Islamist headscarf to show which culture is to prevail. The West is having trouble distinguishing between imperialism and self-defense, but this is not the first time that has happened, is it? Thompson wrote: "Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves." But will they be dhimmis? The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, The Truth About Syria, is due out in May.