Monday, March 26, 2007

What's Iran Up To?

Also at DKos.

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.

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Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.

10 comments:

  1. Uneducated guess: Someone of the five Iranians that got taken up north has finally gotten to a phone and demanded help from his second cousin, or something.

    The Khameini-quote might also be a part of a mad-dog strategy based on a analysis that the Bush admin is too weak to go for Iran. The last thing Blair wants is another war, he is in the business of wrapping up his career and a war with Iran is a nightmare to him locally.

    But hell, maybe THEY want war...? If so, that will be ..interesting... The Hiroshima option hovers menacingly in the background...

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  2. Anonymous1:58 PM

    Jeff, like you, I also thought they were in the more-or-less reasonable camp. I could understand capture, chest thumping, then releasing them. It's hard to understand what material gains they hope to achieve with this.

    Trying to get Bush to do something crazy is like trying to get a bear to eat a juicy steak. It's in his blood. Dangerous game by Iran.

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  3. Bacon's Rebellion3:04 PM

    Jeff,

    Like yourself I've been monitoring this story and trying to put together the few pieces of information that we have in order to get some sense of what is taking place.

    There appears to have been no resistance offered by the Royal Marines from this boarding party when they were intercepted by what appears to have been four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy patrol boats. This is a different service from the Iranian Navy and evidently has an entirely separate chain of command.

    My surmise at this time is that the eight Royal Marines (probably two teams of four Marines in each Zodiac boat) were armed only with conventional small arms (likely some variant of the SA-80 rifle and possibly 9mm pistols) and were probably under extremely restrictive rules of engagement (ROE). Regardless they were no match for the heavy machine guns and whatever other crew served weaponry was mounted on the Iranian patrol boats. It would have been a short one-way fight even if the "bootnecks" had that option under their existing ROE.

    The larger question in my mind is why HMS CORNWALL appears to have done nothing to prevent their capture. Again I have no doubt that the skipper of the CORNWALL had very little autonomy in this matter and that his every move had to be cleared through the Admiralty, who in turn had to go beg for guidance from White Hall. Still when boarding operations were initiated in this contested area everyone involved in a position of authority had to know that there were potentially high risks of just this sort of thing happening.

    Another puzzling thing is that traditionally in the Royal Navy a boarding party is under the command of a junior naval officer. There has been no mention of any officer from either service being present with this boarding party.

    Something else that I find troubling is that if you are embarking on a boarding mission in this part of the world and know that it can rapidly develop into a bona fide crisis why in hell would you send a female petty officer into the middle of it. If this is the best person that HMS CORNWALL could muster for such a mission its a pretty sad commentary on the state of the Royal Navy. The British press is already wringing their hands over the "kidnapped petty officer mom".

    Undoubtedly the Iranians are taking advantage of this windfall in order to try and pressure the U.S. government to give back some of their intelligence operatives that we have recently snatched from various locales. I'm sure that it was only a matter of time before they began their own "snatch & grab" operations aimed at U.S. and British military, diplomatic and intelligence personnel. By doing it this way they can also play the offended party whose sovereign territory has been encroached upon.

    The bottom line here seems to be did we and the British simply stumble into this situation through another series of blunders, lack of foresight and ineptitude or is this a deliberate action taken in order to give Bush and Cheney their casus belli with Iran. At the moment I'm inclined to believe it is the former.

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  4. Anonymous2:19 AM

    typo-
    that one OR both of the local commanders

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  5. AnonWoman6:04 AM

    I recently read “Reading Lolita In Tehran.” Life for the average citizen (at least the female citizen) is certainly not rational. Ahmadinejad and Bush appear to have been separated at birth but haven't forgotten they were initially conjoined and are determined to hook up again.

    I realize that Ahmadinejad is basically nothing more than the mayor of Tehran and I understand that the Supreme Leaders hold the real power there, but Ahmadinejad is the face they present to the world. He is anything but rational.

    When the bullies circle on the playground, hell is bound to break loose. Terrifying.

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  6. Perhaps the Iranian leadership realizes that a US attack is inevitable, and they want to drive the decision cycle. By snatching the British sailors, the Iranian government increases the likelihood that the US govt will move now. That way, the Iranians have taken the initiative.

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  7. It's ridiculously hard to try and second-guess the regime in Tehran because they, like NKorea, routinely act outside the box most diplomats expect. It could just be the Iranians are trying to send a message to British voters with Blair indicating he will step down later this year.

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  8. Old Bogus1:02 PM

    I saw the seizure as a "shot across the bow" of the US warships in the Gulf. The US is claiming they aren't there to provoke an incident but to preserve the peace or some other inane excuse.

    By grabbing a British ship in questionable waters, the Iranians can judge why the US fleet is hanging around. Since, officially at least, the US Navy has moved back from possible incursion into Iranian waters, Iran learned how far the US Navy is prepared to go right now, if my thesis is true.

    As for the purpose of continuing to hold the sailors, this could just be a bureaucratic deadlock in the Iranian system or a larger purpose.

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  9. Thanks once again for the great discussion, gang.

    Best,

    Jeff

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