Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rhetoric and Iran's Hostages

I haven't written about the sailors captured by Iran until now but not because the issue isn't important. I haven't written about it because I've yet to see a remotely convincing idea as to what we should do next. However, other commentators have not been so reticent. I feel I should point out the problems with their proposed courses of action.

Both Britain and America and EU Referendum cite Melanie Phillips. Citing Melanie Philips nearly always means that you're not sure what to recommend so have fallen back on ideological outrage as this is nearly all Phillips does. Her piece is full of her usual throwaway bizarre statements. Take this one for example:

"In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini declared war on the West. We took no notice."

That's entirely untrue. The fall of the Shah was most certainly noticed even though the response was Carter and the worst foreign policy mistake in US post-war history. EU Referendum's piece deploys that blog's characteristic "you're all rubbish" rhetorical style.

All three blogs make the quite sensible point that the rules of engagement should allow for self-defence. While getting in a firefight with the Iranian Republican Guard has serious consequences we can't put troops in the presence of our enemies and refuse them permission to defend themselves. If they do need to be changed it is a little late for changing the rules of engagement now, though. The Iranians don't need to keep pulling this particular trick.

Also, the military do insist that it was not the rules of engagement but an ambush which left the sailors unable to defend themselves:

"The officer at the Ministry of Defence justified the lack of reaction by the British personnel. Their rules of engagement, he said, were adequate for self defence but they were taken by surprise as they left the ship they had inspected.

Two Iranian boats with far heavier weapons - rocket launchers and heavy machine guns against rifles and pistols - came alongside after indicating a friendly attitude."

None of these blogs has a persuasive idea for what to do about the problem now the sailors have been captured.

Melanie Phillips argues that we must set a timetable. However, a timetable which does not include what we will do if that ultimatum is flouted is a joke. She then argues we should get a UN resolution. Melanie Phillips arguing for a UN solution!

Even if the resolution she is looking for, "enabling us to use ‘all necessary means’ to get them back", were to be passed that just puts us back at square one working out what exactly we're going to do with the power the UN has authorised us to use. Not one of the commentators, three of the most right-wing in Britain, is prepared to openly advocate military action so all we're left with is vague suggestions of sanctions.

EU Referendum recommends European trade sanctions. Richard North arguing for an EU solution!

Even if these sanctions could be put in place they leave out Russia and China which means that Iran will not exactly be feeling its pips squeaking. Iran will also not want to risk looking weak in the face of sanctions with its credibility on the line and the nuclear issue not going away. Iran can and will ignore economic sanctions.

Both EU and UN solutions rely upon institutions which move exceptionally slowly. This is a problem because Iran can move exceptionally quickly to promise to return hostages, to offer conditions, to actually return hostages at the last possible moment. Our sailors could spend months in captivity while motions are discussed, vetoed and resubmitted.

David Frum, whose hawk credentials should hardly be in doubt, has a rather different take on things:

"Over-emphatic American rhetoric at this point would give the Europeans an escape hatch. Over-emphatic rhetoric would make America, not Iran, the issue. And under today's circumstances, such rhetoric would accomplish nothing. I've argued for a long time that the Bush administration will not strike Iran militarily. I may ultimately be proven wrong about that, but even if I am, they are certainly not going to do so in the next three months, while the surge in Iraq is proceeding. Warnings and threats now must be empty ones, and it is always best to refrain from those.

Iran paid a terrible price for holding 52 Americans hostage in 1979-80: US assistance to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, assistance that helped Iraq to tear up Iran's under-equipped armies. I am sure the time will come for a reckoning with the hostage-takers of today. But this is not it. This is the moment for the US and UK to be all sweet reason - the better to force Europeans to align themselves more clearly now with the right side in the confrontations to come."

This is probably strategically the sensible thing to do. If we are not yet ready to start a war over nuclear weapons then we are almost certainly not ready to do so over a handful of sailors. This means that our threats are, in the end, idle and idle threats are toxic to the credibility that we will act in the future. However, Frum's piece still leaves us with an important question. What is the sweet and reasonable way to go about trying to get our sailors back?

While Frum can speculate that Iran will eventually get what it deserves for this transgression Britain needs to do something now to rescue its citizens.

The starting point for the next phase in a diplomatic attempt to get back the sailors is that we didn't initially publish the data demonstrating the location of the sailors when they were kidnapped. There was some speculation this might be because we were in the wrong. However, it could also be because to do so involves accusing the Iranians of violating Iraqi sovereignty which is a pretty serious diplomatic hit. This appears to be forming the core of our 'reasonable' attempt to get the sailors back.

The emerging shape of the British response is summarised by the New York Times. It is a combination of mild sanctions, a freeze in “bilateral business” and more openly making the case that Iran is in the wrong. In the New York Times article Admiral Charles Style has quite a cutting quote:

"In diplomatic contacts, Iran had provided Britain with an initial set of coordinates for the position of the boats that placed the incident in Iraqi waters.

“We pointed this out to them on Sunday in diplomatic contacts,” Vice Admiral Style said. “After we did this they then provided a second set of coordinates that places the incident in Iranian waters” over two nautical miles away from where they were said to be by Britain, he said.

“It is hard to understand a legitimate reason for this change of coordinates,” he said."

The BBC characterisation of this as the "'ridicule' tactic" is quite apt. There are some signs that it may be bearing fruit as Iran promises to release the female sailor.

While it may grate that this kind of diplomatic language is the most we can do in the face of Iranian provocation this is the bind mistakes in Iraq have gotten us into. It is easy to get angry and accuse the government of appeasement or cowardice but unless better alternatives are offered, or someone wants to make a serious case for war, diplomatic pressure is the only option open to us.


Mr Eugenides said...

Frum's proposed attitude towards Iran is not dissimilar to the way I felt we should have dealt with Iraq in 2002-3; having gone to the UN, the UK and USA gave weapons inspections about 6 weeks before loudly announcing that they were not working and looking for a second UN resolution authorising war. It was entirely unsurprising that many countries were not prepared to give them such authority.

I felt then that we should have played a longer game; having decided that Iraq needed to be "dealt with", we should have been cannier. France and Germany had agreed that Saddam had WMD and that the UN's authority needed to be upheld; the logic of their position would have made it hard (though not impossible) for them to wriggle out of supporting UN-backed action a year, say, down the line. Equally with domestic opponents of military action.

As it was, the Americans' trigger finger was too obviously itchy, and gave "the Europeans" the excuse they needed to dig their heels in. I've often felt that a bit more patience could have seen a much broader coalition ranged against Iraq, diplomatically if not militarily. And who knows what effect that might or might not have had on the aftermath of the war.

Anonymous said...

The comments of Craig Murray are probably the most sensible that I have seen so far.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I'm not convinced. The Iranians aren't claiming a different border to us, they're claiming a different position for the boats. If it were a dispute over the position of the border Murray's argument would make sense but it just isn't.

Anonymous said...

Wretchard at The Belmont club also agreed with a diplomatic approach – but a much tougher one. Expelling Iranian diplomats and rounding up/ expelling known Iranian agents in the UK.
“In comments section, I suggested that the British would be best served by "going ugly early" as strongly as possible without crossing the line into overt hostilities. The strategy behind such a move would be to make the Iranians work to put the ball back into diplomatic territory.
So in my opinion, if the Brits are not going to be sucked into some paralyzing hostage crisis, they need to do something now. One possibility would be to expel all Iranian diplomats and known agents from the UK. That would break the spell without necessarily escalating into warfighting. Some of those agents could also be detained under the British preventive detention. Then it would be even stevens with the ball in Ahmedinajad's court. Then it will be his turn to squirm and decide whether five and not six shots were fired from the magnum .44.
But as events transpired, Whitehall telegraphed that it was going the diplomatic route by first going to the EU, then to the UN, which of course required that its Embassy remain in Teheran. The Ayatollahs must have breathed a sigh of relief at that moment. Because now they knew which route the British were going to take. And unsurprisingly the wheels came off the British wagon within days. The EU threatened to take appropriate action. The UN spent a whole day deliberating whether to issue a statement expressing "concern" over the British hostages instead of taking the opportunity to "deplore" Iran's actions. Very shortly after the British committed to going down the diplomatic track, the Ayatollahs knew Whitehall was up against a dead-end.”