The Iran-Britain Standoff: Reading the Signs

The Iran-Britain Standoff: Reading the Signs

From the moment Iranian forces captured a group of 15 British sailors and Marines, the tensions among competing power centers within Iran began bubbling to the surface. One can almost imagine the heated debates raging among assorted Mullahs, military men and politicians about what to do with the 14 men and one woman taken on March 21 in the waters of the Persian Gulf. That, not coincidentally, was the day before a scheduled meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which approved new sanctions against the Islamic Republic, demanding yet again the suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment program.

There are many possible reasons why someone in Tehran decided to order the Revolutionary Guards to capture a small slice of what remains of the mighty British Navy, the same force that once dominated a stretch so vast that the sun never stopped shining upon it. There is only one explanation, however, for why the target was Britain and not the United States: The Americans would have fired back. According to Lt. Cmdr. Erik Horner, U.S. rules of engagement "Allow a little more latitude . . . a little bit more towards self-preservation." And, if Iranians had still captured American service members despite the more robust rules of engagement, we can be sure the calm-voiced calls for a prompt release we now hear from London would have been replaced by much less conciliatory threats from Washington.

So, why did Iran do it? Most likely, they wanted to send a message that they are not intimidated by the West and by international sanctions. They wanted to show they have the ability and the nerve to take on their adversaries. And perhaps someone in Iran thought -- incorrectly -- that Britain, a member of the Security Council, would be intimidated into easing its posture towards Iran during the debate at the U.N. A similar incident took place in 2004, when Iran captured another group of British service members, also during the days of international meetings to condemn Iran's nuclear program. This time, Iran has managed to highlight something Britain and the United States already know. Namely, that the Iraq conflict has turned their mighty military forces into much less intimidating opponents to potential adversaries. In fact, Britain's restraint in response to Iran's aggression -- which under different circumstances might have triggered an open conflict -- is partly a result of the realization that Her Majesty's military looks less like a roaring lion than an ageing, toothless cat. The other possibility behind the capture is that Iran wanted a bargaining chip to trade for the five Iranians taken by U.S. forces in Iraq, accused of being intelligence officers supporting the insurgency.

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