Friday, March 23, 2007

What it means when Iran captures 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Diplomatic crisis. Military crisis.

As you may have heard already -- it's a rather significant story -- Iran caputured 15 Royal Navy and Royal Marine sailors in the Persian Gulf today after they boarded a dhow they suspected of being used for smuggling.

The BBC: "The Royal Navy said the group was on a routine patrol in Iraqi waters and were understood to be unharmed. But Iranian state television quoted the Iran foreign ministry as saying they had illegally entered Iranian waters." The sailors were apparently not harmed. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has demanded their immediate release. For more, see The Guardian.

It may all be a misunderstanding. Iran claims the sailors were in Iranian territorial water; the Royal Navy claims they were in Iraqi territorial water.

But what does it all mean? What is the larger context?

For that I turn to Steve Clemons:

But this is more evidence that America and Iran are poking each other through proxies. Iran is using these British military personnel to send signals to the U.S. -- and the U.S. has taken similar actions against Iran inside Iraq and probably along the Iran-Iraq border.

These kinds of incidents become the stuff of escalation and miscalculation...

One hopes that Bush has the sense to drop the swagger and realizes that we are increasingly tilting towards accidental, if not purposeful, war -- but perhaps that is the President's intention.

It doesn't always take much to start a war (think WWI) and sometimes the momentum towards war (in the form of "escalation and miscalculation" (also WWI, Vietnam, etc.) is stronger than the willingness to work to prevent it. And sometimes, of course, war is actually desired by those in a position to wage it (the current Iraq War).

Whether or not Bush actually desires war with Iran, or even limited military strikes against strategic targets inside Iran, there is clearly escalation and miscalculation here. Bush and others who support him and/or have an interest in heightening the tension between the U.S. and Iran have been trying to make the case -- without much evidence and perhaps with manipulated intelligence -- that Iran has been supplying arms to Iraqi Shiite militias and that Iran's (military-oriented) nuclear program is far more developed than it really is. And, as Steve mentions, there is that presidential "swagger," that rhetorical warmongering that has driven an even deeper wedge between the U.S. and Iran.

Of course, Bush is not solely to blame. His reckless rhetoric has been eclipsed by Iranian President Ahmadinejad's relentless anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric may be for domestic consumption and he may be tapping into strong currents of Iranian nationalism to sustain his position, but it doesn't help that Bush has been playing right along. The momentum is clear.

The 15 sailors will likely be released. It is hardly in Iran's interest to hold them captive for much longer. The point -- presumably that Iran will defend itself vigorously against U.S. and British aggression (even if this wasn't an act of aggression), that is, that it won't back down -- has been made.

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail -- not just to resolve this mini-crisis but to head off whatever military crises lie ahead. If they don't, and if the escalation and miscalculation continue, war may prove to be inevitable.

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