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The Iran Crisis Deepens In Tit For Tat Responses

Such the diplomat
by Martin Walker
UPI Editor Emeritus
Wasghington (UPI) Mar 28, 2007
We have seen this movie before. One of the West's leading statesmen, and a powerful advocate for human rights, is deliberately humiliated by hostage-seizing Iranian radicals. Moreover, the Iranian radicals believe they can get away with it because they know perfectly well that the Western leaders are constrained by their own moral code to abide, as far as they can, by international law.

An Iranian hostage crisis is the common factor between Britain's Tony Blair in 2007 and the humiliated U.S. presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1979 and 1980. The radicals of Tehran, whether the young student hotheads of 1979 who seized the U.S. Embassy or the middle-aged Revolutionary Guard commanders of today, believe they have stronger nerves and more political will than the leaders of the West.

They were wrong before, and they could be wrong again. Carter made a bold effort to free the U.S. hostages with a daring landing deep inside Iranian territory, with Special Forces then supposed to hijack trucks, drive to Tehran, take the embassy, free the hostages and fly out again. It was a very risky plan, and it failed at almost the first hurdle, when two helicopters collided in the dust storm thrown up by their own rotor blades, and the mission was aborted. The world remembers Carter's failure, rather than his courage in trying the plan.

Special Forces operations have come a long way since then, and Britain's elite SAS troops are among the world's best. A rescue mission will always be an option. But the West has other assets, and the entry into the Persian Gulf this week of a second U.S. aircraft carrier task force, led by the USS John C. Stennis, was a reminder to Iran of just how much force is now being arrayed against it.

This week's exercises represent the largest assembly of military force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With 15 warships and more than 100 military aircraft maneuvering just off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, the message to Tehran could hardly have been clearer.

"If there is strong presence, then it sends a clear message that you better be careful about trying to intimidate others," Capt. Bradley Johanson, commander of the Stennis, told reporters. "Iran has adopted a very escalatory posture with the things that they have done," he added.

The message may have been sent. But the Iranians either refuse to hear it, ignore it, or take threats without action as yet another sign of Western weakness and disarray. They do not seem to follow the usual processes of diplomacy or logic. And Iranian officials lie routinely, as Pierre Goldschmidt, formerly deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, details in "Correcting Iran's Nuclear Disinformation," a new study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Iranian officials are trying to portray Iran as a victim of Western neo-colonialist attitude, arguing that the West wants to deprive Iran of its inalienable right to reap the benefits of nuclear energy. The reality is that Iran is a victim of its own specific behavior," Goldschmidt notes, citing the report of Mohamed ElBaradei to the IAEA Board of Governors, which said bluntly: "It is clear that Iran has failed in a number of instances over an extended period of time to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement" and "in the past, Iran had concealed many aspects of its nuclear activities, with resultant breaches of its obligation to comply with the provision of its Safeguards Agreement."

So what do Blair and his American allies do now? Blair has talked of the crisis going into "a new phase." This appears to mean publishing the evidence from satellites and global positioning systems that demonstrate that the British sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters when the Iranians launched what looked like a very carefully planned attack in overwhelming force. The Iranians were given the opportunity to say it was all a misunderstanding and to return the sailors and boats, and they turned it down, clearly preferring escalation.

It is always useful to have a strong legal case, and it is sensible for Blair to use the platform of the United Nations to demonstrate that Iran was in the wrong. The real question is what comes next, bearing in mind that Iran has gotten away with kidnapping and humiliating British troops in the past, forcing them to make "confessions" on videotape before being freed. Having swallowed Iran's bullying tactics in the past, the British should not be surprised if the Iranians expect more craven behavior, particularly since the captured crew includes a woman sailor, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, with a 3-year-old daughter at home.

The Iranians may be misjudging the mood in Britain and in the United States. Blair does not want to be remembered like Jimmy Carter, as a nice but deeply ineffectual chap who let his country be humiliated by the radicals of a rogue state. And George Bush does not want his historical legacy to be Atomic Ayatollahs. It is bad enough that the Bush presidency turned Iran into the regional superpower by destroying Iraq, but even worse to be known forever as the man who allowed Iran to go nuclear.

The standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions has been the world's top crisis-in-waiting for the past year and more. And the realization that military strikes would almost certainly send the oil price soaring way above $100 a barrel has created a misleading sense of optimism that the weakened Bush administration could not take such risks. Those who know Bush best say this is a fundamental misunderstanding of his Texan character. The lurking Iranian crisis could now be coming to a head because Tony Blair does not want to pass into retirement as scorned as Jimmy Carter, and because Bush viscerally rejects the idea that he could be remembered not just as an incompetent, but as an appeaser.

earlier related report
Commentary: Iran's tit for tat
by Arnaud De Borchgrave - UPI Editor at Large
For the past four years, British sailors and Marines in zodiac-type rubber boats have been patrolling and checking vessels for smuggling in the narrow Shatt al-Arab waterway. So why did Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps boats wait until March 24 to suddenly surround a British boat and take 15 Brits prisoner (including a woman) -- without firing a shot?

Before declaring a casus belli (an event that provokes, leads to, or is used to justify war), the obvious answer was the U.S. helicopter raid in Irbil Jan. 11 that captured five IRGC operatives posing as Iranian diplomats. At first, Tehran claimed the five were officially accredited consular officials. Along with a treasure trove of documents and computer hard drives, the U.S. raid was an intelligence coup that completed the jigsaw puzzle of Iran's involvement in Iraq from Basra in the south to Irbil in the north, a pattern of subversion that gave Iran more influence in Iraq than the United States.

What appeared to be tit-for-tat military raids also lay the diplomatic groundwork for protracted negotiations for a prisoner exchange. The Iranian decision to take British rather than American soldiers was probably designed to avoid military escalation. President George W. Bush has accused Iran of destabilizing Iraq and warned there would be a nasty response unless the mullahs opted for normal diplomatic behavior.

Taking U.S. prisoners could have triggered U.S. airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. A former British first sea lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, compared British "de-escalatory" rules and U.S. Navy rules of engagement, which spell out the obligation to self-defense. "Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight, we Brits try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were effectively able to be captured and taken away," waffled Britain's first sea lord.

The Brits also pointed out that the Iranian naval force that encircled their patrol boat was IRGC's Al-Quds -- naval Special Forces, not regular navy. A distinction without a difference.

A senior Iranian military official linked the Shatt al-Arab capture of 15 Brits with the loss of their five men at Irbil in January. "The decision to capture (British) soldiers was made during a March 18 emergency meeting of the High Council for Security following a report by the Al-Quds contingent commander, Kassem Suleimani, to the Iranian chief of the armed forces, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouz Abadi," according to the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, published in London.

The same report said Suleimani warned Abadi that Al-Quds and IRGC operations had become transparent to U.S. and British intelligence following the arrest of a senior Al-Quds officer and four of his deputies in Irbil Jan. 11.

Anxious to avoid a protracted three-way negotiation with the United States and Iran, Britain's Tony Blair warned the mullahs in Tehran that unless diplomacy led to the rapid release of the 15 British prisoners, "a different phase" -- i.e., retaliatory measures -- would have to be contemplated. This was not the first such incident for the Royal Navy.

Three years ago Iran's IRGC captured eight British servicemen in the same waterway, subjected them to a three-day ordeal that included mock executions and a visit to what they were told would be their graves. They were released a week later after being paraded blindfolded on Iranian television. A British sergeant then apologized for the "intrusion in Iranian waters." The British commander at the time said, "It's completely outrageous for any nation to go out and arrest the servicemen of another nation in waters that don't belong to them."

Following the latest incident, the U.N. Security Council voted a new set of tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and the U.S. Navy launched its largest maneuvers in the Gulf since the beginning of the Iraq war. Two aircraft carriers, more than 100 fighter bombers, 15 ships and 10,000 U.S. personnel flexed military muscle just beyond Iran's 12-mile territorial waters.

But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made clear his preference was for "higher-level" diplomacy; e.g., above the hot head of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This means, of course, the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The United States is yet to hear from the mullah-in-chief what, precisely, are Iran's security concerns and national and regional ambitions.

Only direct talks at a higher level with both Iran and Syria can begin to lay the groundwork for a free and independent Iraq, guaranteed by all its neighbors. But as Gates pointed out, direct talks with Iran is a path strewn with booby traps.

In his first domestic speech since taking over the Pentagon last December, Gates reminisced about the time in 1979 when he and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski met with Iranian officials to offer diplomatic recognition of the new theocracy. The Iranian response was to demand that the United States turn over the Shah, who was then in exile dying of cancer.

Three days later, 66 Americans were seized in the U.S. Embassy and held for 444 days -- until the day President Ronald Reagan was sworn in. The mullahs presumably got cold feet and assumed the new president would opt for military options.

Twenty-eight years later, the Bush administration is trying to calibrate the right mix of soft and hard power, hoping it will prove smart power. Meanwhile, gold hit a four-week high and oil was on its way to $70 a barrel.

Source: United Press International

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