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.