Regardless of whether the British frigate involved was in Iranian or Iraqi waters, Iran has custody of 15 British sailors and marines. Will this incident become the "trigger" that starts a U.S.-Iran war?
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says that he wants to resolve the issue diplomatically, but calls the situation "very serious" and hopes the Iranian government understands "how fundamental an issue this is for the British government."
We don't know a heck of a lot about the incident. Here's a synopsis from the San Francisco Chronicle:
Eight Royal Navy sailors and seven marines, traveling in high-speed inflatable rafts through the cramped waters off the Iranian and Iraqi coasts, had just finished inspecting an Iranian-flagged merchant ship for contraband Friday morning when they were surrounded by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps gunboats, detained and hauled off to a nearby Iranian military base.
Iranian officials say the Britons were being held for violating Iranian territorial waters. But British and U.S. military officials insisted the Iranian gunships crossed into Iraqi waters. In a brief communication with a passing British helicopter, Iranians said the 15 men were safe, a U.S. official said.
This incident is both troubling and puzzling. Coalition and Iranian naval vessels have been dancing around these waters together for some time. Why did this snatch and grab operation occur now?
In the era of reliable satellite navigation, it seems unlikely that any of the vessels involved didn't known exactly where they were. The demarcation line between Iraqi and Iranian territorial waters in that part of the waterway may be contested, but that's not a new controversy. Why would the British conduct an intercept operation in what they knew to be contested waters? Moreover, why would the Iranians pull a move this bold if they knew their claims that the incident took place in their waters would be questioned? (And they almost certainly must have known it.) Why did the British sailors and marines let the Revolutionary Guard take them without a fight, and why did their frigate allow the Guard's gunboats speed away without pursuing or challenging them?
We can spin scenarios until Wisconsin cows give cottage cheese. It's possible that the merchant ship being searched was carrying something important enough for the Brits to take extreme risks to find it and for the Iranians to take extreme risks to make sure the Brits didn't discover what it was. It could also simply be that one of both of the local commanders involved committed colossal errors in judgment. Given the pollution in today's information environment, we may never know what really happened.
This affair has features resonant of the Tonkin Gulf incident that Lyndon Johnson used to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the Iranian Hostage crisis, in which 52 American citizens were held by Iran for 444 days and that many consider to have been the key factor of Jimmy Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980.
We can't know today how things will play out, but I wouldn't characterize the prospects for a peaceful solution as "bright."
Much of what comes out of the mouths of Iran's leaders is a vainglorious attempt to gain street credibility at home and throughout the Middle East, where it seeks to become a dominant regional power. But supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene's recent remarks are somewhat difficult to decipher.
Until today, what we have done has been in accordance with international regulations. But if they [the U.N. Security Council] take illegal actions, we too can take illegal actions and will do so.
No one is certain what Khamene means by "illegal actions" that Iran might take. Was the abduction of British sailors and marines an example?
To date, despite its belligerent rhetoric, I've considered Iran's leadership to be rational actors. Now, I'm starting to wonder. Up to now, Britain has been opposed to a unilateral U.S. attack on Iran. The maritime body snatch might reverse the U.K.'s position on that issue.
The Iranians' pal Russia isn't too happy with them either. Iran is falling behind on payments for Russia's help in building their reactor in Bushehr. Russia and China have released a joint statement calling for Iran to comply with U.N. sanctions, a remarkable step considering that they are Iran's most powerful allies.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded:
Iran will not stop its peaceful and legal nuclear trend even for one second because of such an illegal resolution…
… The Iranian nation will not forget those who backed and those who rejected (the resolution), while adjusting its international relations.
Wheels Within Wheels
We don't know what's going on inside Iran. Reformists won a landslide victory in February's general election, a sign that Ahmadinejad has lost support of the population and the ruling mullahs. Perhaps the internal political situation in Iran is so splintered at this point that they're no longer able to conduct a coherent foreign policy. Right now, they're pushing their two best friends into the arms of their enemies.
It's like they've stolen a page from the Bush administration playbook.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.