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On March 23, Iran seized 15 British sailors and Marines in the Shatt-al-Arab, accusing them of operating in Iranian waters. Normally, this sort of minor border incident would not be worth much thought. But given the strength of the war parties both in Washington and in Tehran, any incident is the equivalent of smoking in the powder magazine. So what is really going on here?

We probably will not know the answer to that question until British, American and Iranian archives are opened many years from now. But some careful thought may at least point us in the right direction.

The first possibility is that the whole thing is just what it seems to be, a border incident. The border between Iranian and Iraqi waters in the Shatt is vague at best, so both the British and the Iranians may think themselves in the right in their claims about the British boarding party’s location. Or, one party or both may be attempting to stake a claim to some of those waters.

The Middle East being what it is, I suspect there is more to it. But we should soon know; if it is nothing more than a border dispute, Iran will accept Britain’s promise to be more careful in future and let Her Majesty’s sailors and Marines go.

A second possibility strikes me as more likely, namely that the Iranians grabbed some British hostages for a swap. The U.S. is holding five Iranians it took in a raid in northern Iraq in January. According to the Sunday Washington Post, “Iranian officials expected them to be released on the Iranian new year, March 21.” Just two days after that release failed to occur, the Iranians grabbed the Brits. More, the Iranian forces who seized the British boarding party were Revolutionary Guard, not Iranian Navy; the Iranians held by the U.S. are also Revolutionary Guards, from the Guard’s elite Quds Force.

What could be more Middle Eastern than setting up a trade?

Washington is saying “no deal,” but the decision will likely be made in London, unless Bush is in a mood to boot Fifi the Poodle, aka Tony Blair, down the stairs.

A third question is, could Britain and the U.S. have set the whole thing up to create an incident justifying a strike on Iran? That seems unlikely, given that Britain is not keen on war with Iran.

But what about the reverse? Could Iran have grabbed some British hostages as a way of pre-empting an American attack planned for April? This is where things get interesting.

Rumors have circulated in Washington for months naming April as the likely time for a U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such rumors are common in wartime and usually prove wrong. But starting about two weeks ago, the Russians have pulled out the hundreds of people they had working on Iran’s first nuclear power plant, now nearing completion. The official Russian explanation was a “contract dispute,” but if you believe that I have a great bridge up in Brooklyn I’d love to sell you. If in fact Washington plans to hit Iran in April, it almost has to have tipped the Russians off so they could get their people out. Not doing so would have meant lots of dead Russians, killed by American bombs, with serious consequences in Europe and the U.N. as well as to American-Russian relations. The Russian pull-out, if not a direct leak from Moscow to Tehran, would have tipped off the Iranians. The question for them then would be, how to pre-empt?

Seizing just 15 British servicemen would hardly seem likely to pre-empt a major attack. But here is where the eastern way of war differs from the western. In the indirect, eastern way of war, it is often considered preferable to go after a strong enemy’s weak allies rather than his main strength. Would the Blair government collapse if, in response to an American strike on Iran, the heads of those 15 Brits ended up on pikes outside the British Embassy in Tehran? Good chance of it. That would in turn leave the U.S. totally stripped of meaningful allies, not only against Iran but also in Iraq. Could that potential give the White House pause? It could. If an action by Bush brought down his most loyal ally, Blair, who else would ever ally with Bush?

Again, this is all speculative, as it must be without better sources in Tehran than I possess. But we can look for an indicator. If Tehran refuses all efforts to resolve the matter, even with a trade of prisoners, then Iran probably has some continued use for British hostages. Holding them means paying increasing political costs, especially in Iran’s relationships with Europe, which are important to the Iranian regime. What is worth enough to pay those costs? Messing up American plans for an attack.

All of this, especially the Russians’ pull-out from the Iranian reactor project, adds up to a blinking red light on the panel that monitors the risk of another war in the Middle East. With the dispatch of the aircraft carrier Nimitz to the Persian Gulf, which will put three carriers on station for a few weeks later in April, the whole panel should soon light up.

NB: As a follow-up to last week’s column on Operation Anabasis, General Barry McCaffrey’s report on his recent trip to Iraq states that

at division and brigade level these C3I command posts are not movable. . They simply are not prepared to effectively fight a war of maneuver. (For example, against the Syrians or the Iranians.)

We are overly dependant on Kuwait for logistics.

If Iranian military action closed the Persian Gulf the US combat force in Iraq would immediately begin to suffocate logistically.

All the pieces of a very ugly puzzle are falling into place.

William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.

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