politics, history and the war on terror
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
The Shatt al-Arab  

The War on Terror shifts to one of its many fronts. Iran has captured eight British sailors and plans on placing them on trial.

"They are going to be prosecuted for illegally entering Iranian territorial waters. They were 1,000 metres inside Iranian territorial waters," said the Arabic-language satellite channel, a branch of Iran's state television.
The sailors were escorting boats to be used by Iraq's river patrol security services, and appear to have been detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Shatt al-Arab waterway (see map), a hotly disputed border area between Iran and Iraq.

"The waterway runs over a mile (1.6 kilometres) wide. The border runs pretty much down the middle of it ... Maybe, it was disputed whose side" of the border the vessels were on, [a Royal Navy spokesman] said.
The accidental violation of territorial sovereignty in such a difficult waterway should not spark such an international dispute, and one has to wonder what Iran's motivations are for detaining and placing the British sailors on trial. The two likely motivations for Iran's actions are thrawrting democracy in Iraq and Iran's nuclear program. Iran has no interest in the establishment of democracy in Iraq; this is a direct threat to the theocratic regime and a beacon for the vast pro-democracy movement in Iran. Iran believes the coalition in Iraq is fragile and uncommitted, based on the restraint shown against Sadr, Iran's proxy in Iraq, and the Ba'athists in Fallujah. Because of this, Iran may be attempting to weaken the coalition in Iraq by attempting to peel Britain away; perhaps they perceive domestic support for British involvement in Iraq to be weak and the capture of the British sailors will provide the final blow to British support. Second, Iran may be trying to force the British to back off from criticizing Iran on its nuclear weapons program. In both cases, the Iranians are attempting to use the sailors as hostages in order to attain its goals.

This is a dangerous game. Iran is making the assumption that Prime Minister Tony Blair will be cowed by a hostage situation, much as President Carter was rendered ineffective during the 444 day Iran hostage crisis at the end of his term. This is not 1980, and Tony Blair must know that President Carter's inaction during the hostage crisis was a major reason for his downfall. A repeat of the 1980 Desert One hostage rescue failure is highly unlikely as well trained British and American forces are stationed right next door in Iraq. And if America and Britain are looking for an excuse to destroy Iran's nuclear program using targeted air strikes as well as limited raids by ground forces, a hostage situation can give them all the needed reasons to strike. If the Mullahs decide to follow through on the threat of trying the British Sailors, they had better be prepared for the consequences: the destruction of their nuclear facilities and the Mullahcracy's potential fall from power. Prime Minister Blair and President Bush have demonstrated a willingness to sidestep the international community and take action when the threat is deemed large enough, and Iran is coming perilously close to crossing the threshold.

Posted by bill roggio @ 12:50 AM