Thursday, 29 March 2007

Admit the truth: We need Iran more than its leaders need us

The Have Your Say section of BBC Online can be a depressing place to spend one’s lunchtime, but rarely more so than when foreign affairs are in the news.

Statements condemning the 15 British naval personnel recently seized by Iran for not fighting to the death suggest a view of soldiers that bears no relation to the facts. Rather than being required to fight and die, they are bound by strict rules of engagement saying when they should and should not shoot, and anyway are entitled to surrender if heavily out-numbered. They may even have received orders to surrender. Yet one pompous idiot even had the gall to quote Churchill’s “never surrender” speech at former First Sea Lord Sir Alan West when he pointed out that our people were heavily out-gunned.

More depressing, however, is the desire to rescue the captives and punish Iran. A typical comment reads “why dont [sic.] we just wade in and get them out?”; another “Seize the next oil tanker out of Iran, then the next, then the next... They will soon yield when it comes down to loosing their revenue”; and a third “Enough is enough. Time for gunboat diplomacy. Unfortunately, it's the only thing these rogue states understand.” To be fair, there are no shortage of opposing voices, but the eagerness with which some would like to resolve this in the manner of a Tom Clancy book is depressing.

For one thing, the Iranians are wary of a rescue mission and have kept the location of the hostages a secret. This renders an extraction mission rather difficult. That being said, when the Iranians took 63 US diplomats and three other citizens hostage in 1979, President Jimmy Carter knew exactly where they were. The disaster that befell that mission should be a lesson to all armchair generals.

Back in the (good?) old days, if a British subject suffered at the hands of some foreign Johnny, the response would be a punitive expedition. We’d march a Brigade of the Black Watch up country, burning anything of value and salting the soil, and then return to the safety of home (or rather, to India) leaving nothing behind for the perpetrator to either enjoy or to take revenge upon. These days we don’t have a Black Watch. Instead we have the “surgical strike” and “sanctions”.

Do not rush out to subscribe to Newsweek just yet, however, for our response to this crisis will be far more symbolic than real. Sanctions are next to useless against Iran for three reasons: 1) the leadership are unconcerned by targeted sanctions, as they are not the types to do their Christmas shopping at Fayed’s; 2) broad-ranging sanctions would only drive the populous into the hands of their leaders, when we would really like to encourage domestic dissent rather than a Persian Dunkirk-spirit; 3) the only sanction that will really bite is oil sanctions, and at $66.10 a barrel, oil’s plenty pricey enough. In addition, we are already pushing the realistic limits of sanctions over Iranian plans to enrich uranium.

Military action is equally difficult. To my mind (he says, settling back into his armchair and imagining himself a general) a targeted military response would aim at the Iranian navy, striking at a few of its fast patrol boats. It would not need to be large; just symbolic. However, the consequences would be heavy. The population of Iran would be incensed by our response to what was the leadership’s (or part of its) crime; dissenting voices would fall silent as the population rallied round. British ships in the (narrow) Gulf would have to risk a response by surface-to-surface missiles. Shias Iraq would erupt. And the oil prices would escalate anyway.

The sad fact is that as long as Iran is not a democratic state, we need it more than its leaders need us. This is partly because we are in a weak position due to our Iraqi and Afghan commitments. But more significantly, it is because we are a democracy, and they are not. It is very easy for the Iranians to upset British public opinion – either oil prices or war casualties will put enormous pressure on our government. What is more, we are not united on this issue, and another military engagement or heavy sanctions regime would cause uproar in Britain. By comparison, it is hard for us to hurt the Iranian leadership directly, and public opinion has very little effect on their reasoning. Simply put, they have the advantage.

But as Robert Mugabe is beginning to learn, that advantage can slip away quickly. Tyranny usually leads to collapse: Iran’s economy is struggling despite its oil, and nearly half of its youth are unemployed. Iranians are already disaffected, and that disaffection will grow; many are undoubtedly ashamed by their governments contempt for the law, human dignity and Iran’s international reputation. In the long run, Britain and the West’s interests lie in encouraging that disaffection, not by attacking the symbols of Iran’s sovereignty, but by showing sympathy and support for the people while condemning their leaders.

Democracy is often criticised for leading to short-term planning: the “daily mandate” rather than the next generation. Yet autocracies, too, must constantly shore up their regime. In this instance, Britain can afford to play for time, to play the long game. Every effort must be made to get the hostages released quickly, of course, but gung-ho action will not hasten the end of the execrable Iranian regime.

Fortunately, the heads in charge of dealing with this crisis are cooler than those reading BBC Online.


Tristan said...

All politics is dominated by short term goals. No system will ever put long term planning at the forefront.

That's possibly a good thing though, given the amazing ability of governments to cock things up.

You are correct in your analysis of our situation with Iran though.

Lara Braveheart said...

Oh, okay... so this is what 'liberalism' means these days.....

I mean who cares about International Law, who cares about the very distinct possibility that those Navy skivvies were in Iranian -- at least to their perception -- waters!

You want to talk about bombing Iran, without so much a reference to International Law! Planning an act of aggression against another state, and carrying it out by the means of pre-emptive war is EXACTLY WHAT THE NAZI'S WERE FOUND GUILTY OF AT NUREMBERG.

According to that legal precedent... the UK and USA are guilty of war crimes against Afghanistan (the FBI have admitted that they have no 'evidence' (which is what is needed to convict someone in a court of law) which links Osama Bin Laden to 9/11), Iraq (President Bush has admitted that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11), and now Iran (again on false pretenses), and it appears that does not bother them one bit...

And instead of raising these issues at every opportunity and demanding your representatives obey international law, you sit around and discuss hypothetical invasions for Iran....

Perhaps.... you may wish to consider the possibility that you are so brainwashed you may become braindead????

Anonymous said...

Yes, we need Iran, but not for the reasons above.
We need a belligerent, terroristc Iran to scare the gulf Countries. we do not just create Frankensteins to destroy them before they achieve what they were made for. We deliberately handed Iraq to Iran, created death squads, botched the occupation, allowed the Iranian killer to come to Iraq and surround our troops. We all know the truth, and it is uglier than you think. If we wanted to stop terror, we would have gone to Iran FIRST. come on, grow up

Tom Papworth said...


I rather thought I'd talked about not bombing Iran. Perhaps you should read the post a little more carefully.


You're conspiracy theory about Iraq mistakes accident for design. The tragedy of Iraq is not evidence of an evil plot but of ignorant blunder on behalf of politicians who failed to comprehend the results of their actions.

But as your last line implies that we should have attacked Iran, I suspect you have an ulterior motive.

Anonymous said...

You assuming facts not on the record.
Did we not know before attacking Iraq that Iran was ahead of everybody else in their armament program?
Did we not know that for the last quarter century Iran was behind most terrorist acts againt the USA?
Did we not know about the divisions of Shiite and Sunnis in Iraq? Did we not know not to open the borders to Iran to infilte rate with their killers? did we not know that UBL was taking orders from Iran? Did we not know that Iran would be the main benefactor of our wars on Talibans and Iraq and we insisted on going to Iraq knwoing that there are no weapons of mass destructions? Did we not know that the those climbing the political ladder in Iraq are the enemy of Iraqi people, Shiite and Sunnis alike? did we not know that by going to Iraq, our troops will be hostages to Iran's allies and I do not mean the Shiite of Iraq, but the Iran backed part of Iraqi Shiite like Dawa and Sciri?
How do you explain dubbing Mujhidikhalk as aterrorist organazation?
How do you explain not sending enough troops to Iraq and firing the General who sounded the alarm?
How do you explain refusing to conduct a census in Iraq to build the first foundation of democracy(the percentages given by the media are nothing but a quota for genocide)? How do you explain disbanding the Bath party while turning a blind eye on the Bathissits who are running the death squads (Shiite Arabs)? how do you explain the media's complicity in covering up the genocide in Iraq against Sunnis?
It is a fact that the same Iran-Contra elements are in the White House. It is a fact that we have always extended an olive branch to Iran. It is a fact that the rise of neo cons in Iran (Ahmadinajad) happened as a direct and vey forseeable result of our Iraq misadventure. It is a fact that we keep on telling the Iranians that we will accomodate their desire to be the hegemon in the Gulf if they give up their nuclear program. It is a fact that Iran's strategic interst s were achieved by American blood in Iraq and elsewhere. The Iranians are surrounding us. We are not surrounding them. We can destroy them but we do not want to.
They should be smart: they should show their enmity to the Arabs and stay away from Israel (they have been doing just that by exterminating the Sunnis); They should pose a threat to the Saudis; and finally, they should make sure that no democracy will ever flourish in Iraq.
If the Iranians are this smart, then they will have honored the deal we somehow struck with them as a return on our extending blood credit to them by handing over Iraq to them.