The Iran hostage crisis in context
These cartoon-like portrayals of the situation may make us feel warm and fuzzy about Western power, and instil suitable levels of contempt for the barbarians on the periphery, but they are unlikely to give us a realistic or productive sense of what has been happening over the last two weeks. Let us then step out of the standard conceptualisation and instead consider an alternative Iranian viewpoint: not that of the half-crazed spoiler of Anglo-Saxon missionary work in the Middle East, but instead as another reasonably rational (though undoubtedly unpleasant) state actor in a volatile region, which volatility presents it with a number of substantial issues to deal with. Using this alternative paradigm, we may approach the situation with fresh eyes and ask ourselves a couple of pertinent questions: what might Iran’s reasons for arresting the British service-people have been, and how have the various actors involved benefited or lost from crisis? To answer these questions through an understanding of a rational Iranian point of view requires an appreciation of the context within which these events have taken place. A look at the relevant history is therefore required.
Britain’s maintained a steady and decisive level of interference in Iranian politics throughout the first half of the 20th century, with the aim of maintaining its control over Iranian oil reserves. This manipulation peaked with the coup of 1953, effected with the US in the lead, that overthrew the elected Iranian prime minister - Mohammad Mossadegh - and replaced him with a repressive dictatorship. Mossadegh’s crime had been to nationalise Iran’s oil industry, inspired by the radical notion that a country’s resources should benefit its own population, not the ruling elite of a distant power. For Britain and the US, such misbehaviour could not go unpunished. As penance, Iran would spend the next quarter century subjected to a reign of state terror under the Shah and his notorious secret police the Savak which Amnesty International described as “beyond belief” and which was backed to the hilt by the US and the UK.
This regime was brought to an end by the revolution of 1979, which ushered in the era of limited democracy compromised by severely authoritarian clerical rule that continues to this day. The West’s antipathy to this new regime is generally put down to the latter being a repressive theocracy that provides backing for international terrorism. To asses this claim, it will suffice to say that such descriptions are even more true of Saudi Arabia, which continues to enjoy a relationship with London and Washington that is unusually close for any state, let alone one of the most brutal on the face of the planet. It is plain that the objection to Iran’s government is not one of principle. If only Iran were our terrorist-backing tyrannical theocracy, it could be far more repressive and have far closer links to far worse terrorists and suffer no adverse repercussions from the West. The problem for London and Washington since 1979, as in the early 1950s, has been Iran’s independence, not its moral character.
As per imperial traditions that long predate the current era of Western pre-eminence, punishment of independent behaviour must be swift and fierce. The centrepiece of the ensuing attempts to discipline this once-again rebellious nation was the West’s backing for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. This included Iraq’s large scale use of chemical weapons, which the West had helped Iraq to acquire, and escalated throughout the war to the point where the US was all but fighting alongside Iraq, providing active and extensive logistical back-up. The war had a profound effect on Iran, which lost hundreds of thousands of its people on the front and in Iraqi attacks on its population centres. The international communities failure to censure Iraq’s illegal war of aggression (note the contrast with the case of Kuwait in 1990) did not go unnoticed in Iran. Nor indeed did the fact that it had been isolated and systematically pulverised over eight devastating years with the material connivance of world’s powers.
With global demand for oil sharply increasing just as global production comes close to its projected historical peak, Iran finds itself sitting atop a strategic and material prize – its carbon energy reserves – whose value to the world’s powers has never been greater. Those powers that have most aggressively pursued Iran’s wealth and sought the subjugation of its government are visibly manoeuvring themselves into diplomatic, political and military positions that a rational Tehran could only find threatening in the extreme. Putting the diplomatic and political scenes to one side, on a military level Iran is currently surrounded by US forces and/or allies, in Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. And as talk of US air strikes against Iran continues, with the strength of the Fifth fleet in the Persian Gulf increasing incrementally and with that fleet conducting “war games” simulating an assault on Iran, only the most reckless Iranian politician could refuse to see war as at least a realistic prospect.
To appreciate the Iranian perspective, we need only imagine that this history were our history, that this regional and political landscape were our own and that our nation were faced with hostile foreign powers whose raw military strength was so out of proportion to that available to us. In such a situation, any government whether liberal or authoritarian would view the fact and nature of the threat in much the same way, and could expect the population to share this view.
How then would a rational state deal with this situation? Its task would be to defend itself, but also to remain conscious of the disparity of forces available to it compared to its antagonists. It could not, unlike either of the superpowers in the Cold War for example, rely on the threat of massive retaliation to preclude any attack. It would therefore need to search for asymmetric methods of deterrence; a way to warn the unwelcome presence on its doorstep that any attempt to forcibly cross the threshold would carry risks sufficient to deter such action. All of the above principles apply both to the military and to the diplomatic scenarios faced by Iran.
In fact, significant asymmetric engagement between Iran and the West has been occurring over several months, perhaps even years. The fact that we have not heard so much of it in the West – let alone the howls of righteous indignation we’ve been treated to the past fortnight – is doubtless because it has been Iran on the receiving end of these efforts and not Britain or the United States. American troops have been detaining Iranians in Iraq in increasing numbers over recent months, including Iranian diplomats present in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government (demonstrating where true power really lies in the Middle East’s newest democracy). In addition, several credible sources report that the West is constantly violating Iran’s territorial integrity. These have been said to include pilotless drone flights, US pursuit of “suspected insurgents” into Iran, and the backing of ethnic separatist terrorist groups within Iran whose activity the West hopes will destabilise the regime.
Beyond this, a more important message was being sent by Iran: that it can apply pressure as well as receive it. Britain will now be painfully aware of the vulnerability of its troops should a US-Iran war break out. It will know of Iran’s deep ties with its Shia co-religionists in Iraq, and it will know that any US attack on Iran, even if Britain’s support was only of the diplomatic and political variety, would result in Iranian countermeasures-by-proxy that would see its troops dying or disappearing across Iraq in numbers not seen since 2003. None of this was a secret before, but the point has been well underlined.
But more striking than this for British officials will be manner in which Iran has demonstrated the shallowness of London’s international alliances and the limits of its strength on the world stage vis a vis Iran. This culminated in the rare sight of a visibly chastened Tony Blair putting on palpably uncomfortable performance before the cameras outside Downing Street shortly after Ahmedinejad’s announcement that the British troops would be released. It will not have escaped Blair’s notice that Iran released those troops not because of any decisive application of international pressure marshalled by London, not perhaps in the end even because of some deal that London was able to offer, but at a time and in a manner more or less entirely of Tehran’s choosing, which certainly caught Whitehall 100% off guard.
Recall that after a few days of relatively mild diplomacy in the initial stages of the crisis, Tony Blair had grandly announced that matters would enter a “new phase” if the Iranians didn’t come to their senses. There followed a staged presentation of information from Britain’s Ministry of Defence, designed to prove to the world that the troops had indisputably been in Iraqi waters. Instead this probably only served to remind the world (a) that what are Iranian and what are Iraqi waters in the Shatt al-Arab are not decided, and are certainly not to be decided by Britain, and (b) that where the Middle East is concerned, the world has heard rather too much from British and American intelligence already in recent years. Certainly the UN Security Council was not overly impressed. While Iran was chastised for arresting Britain’s troops the Council’s language was milder than that recommended by Whitehall and, crucially, member states did not endorse the view that the troops had been in Iraqi waters. Britain then took its case to the EU, where again, whilst condemnation was forthcoming it did not have the teeth that Whitehall was looking for, with Brussels failing to agree to tough sanctions against Tehran. In short, Blair’s “new phase” had fallen rather flat. Tehran had watched London attempt to internationalise their dispute and come up with very little. From there on in it would be between Britain and Iran, not Iran versus the “international community”; at least not to the significant degree that London had hoped for.
At this point, Britain’s language began to soften. The “new phase” was apparently old news. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett came as close to an apology as Tehran could possibly have expected when she told reporters that “the message I want to send is I think everyone regrets that this position has arisen. What we want is a way out of it."”. Then, after a week and a half when the British government apparently had not been able to get in touch with him, Iran’s chief security official Ali Larijani spoke, not to FCO diplomats but to Britain’s Channel Four News, criticising British attempts to internationalise the dispute and explaining that matters could be solved diplomatically between the two countries. Finally, following a brief flurry of speculation in Britain on what such a deal between the two countries might involve, Iran staged a final piece of theatre, releasing the troops as an “Easter gift” to Britain, entirely wrong-footing Whitehall diplomats which had expected bi-lateral discussions to continue for some time yet.
The message was not merely that Iran can reach British troops with relative ease. It was also that on the diplomatic front, Iran does not simply have to react to events as an isolated actor surrounded by a disapproving “international community” reciting condemnations dictated by London and Washington. In this situation, Iran appears to have been more or less in control of the narrative while a relatively isolated Britain has been at the mercy of events, with this being most especially and dramatically true at the conclusion of the crisis last night. Finally, the events of the last fortnight can be seen as a microcosm of how Iran would like the West to see the broader set of disputes between them. Internationalisation is futile, but direct bilateral engagement on the basis of mutual respect – of the kind offered by Iran in 2003 – can yield positive results.
The photos released by Iran of the British troops playing chess in captivity provides us with a useful image. Iran has played a short game of chess with the UK and won fairly convincingly. But this limited result has greater significance. Iran may not be able to prevail in a straightforward military contest with the West, but it does have significant strategic options available to it. Iran has sent the message that in the wider game of chess with its adversaries it has effective ways and means of striking back and should not be underestimated. Iran may not be able to directly deter the Israeli or US administrations from any military action against it or from increasingly aggressive moves in the diplomatic sphere. But Britain has certainly been warned, and any resulting increase in caution on London’s part will cause problems for US-Israeli hawks. And in addition to showing the limits and risks of the current Western stance, Iran has also demonstrated an alternative and more productive path for its adversaries to take. Audaciously, Tehran has turned the tables to a small extent, and adopted a carrots-and-sticks approach to those it perceives as threatening it.
Note - 13/4/07
An anonomous journalist at the Financial Times points out here that the term "hostage" in this context is a politically loaded one. It assumes that the British servicepeople were arrested by Iran in order to extract concessions.
In actual fact, though this article does not assume that the sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters at the time of capture, it does nevertheless argue that they probably were detained for political reasons. But in any event, had I considered the points made by the FT journalist, as I should have done, I might have used more neutral terminology. I'm not minded to correct the piece now, but I insert this note so that the issue's at least highlighted.