Iran’s seizure of 15 British naval personnel has analysts and pundits spinning in circles. Were they trying to influence the U.N. Security Council? Are they trying to “reassert their political and military relevance” in the Persian Gulf area?
Perhaps they’re trying to leverage public opinion — in this case, against Tony Blair — by taking hostages to underscore that those sailors wouldn’t have been at risk if they weren’t engaged in an unpopular war.
That seems to be the theory du jour in some circles. As Meir Javedanfar writes for Pajamas Media.
By capturing the servicemen, Tehran is hoping that the British people, particularly the majority who are already against the war in Iraq will openly blame Blair for the crisis, by saying that it is his fault for endangering the lives of troops by sending them into a conflict zone.
Such internal dissatisfaction, Tehran hopes, would subsequently deal a deadly blow to any plans Blair or his successor may have to support an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
What should truly worry Washington is that if this plan is successful, US soldiers are likely to be next in line for capture by Iran – and a manipulation of American public opinion just before the 2008 elections which would damage a Republican candidate supporting Bush’s stance would be perfect timing.
If Javedanfar’s theory is correct, then public opinion is pretty short-sighted (and perhaps it is).
In 1979, the American hostages weren’t in Iran (or the region) as aggressors; they were embassy staff and diplomats. Furthermore, to draw a 1:1 line between Iran’s current actions and the Iraq War — tempting as it is — is ignoring history, because Iran’s ambitions — both nuclear and regional — long predate March 2003.
Polimom thinks Iran is in a diminishing box. Via the UNSC’s sanctions, their economy is under pressure, and international sympathy is eroding. Thus, their options are increasingly limited.
This particular hand is nearly played out, but the Iranians have played their game long and carefully; there’s far too much at stake for them to simply walk away leaving their chips on the table. Now — while international, Muslim, and Arab sympathies are still inclined against any western military actions — is perhaps their last chance to win the hand, and the game.
If Iran can push Britain (or the West) to (re)act militarily against them before they’ve become too marginalized or isolated, there’s still an excellent chance that the Muslim world (and sympathetic allies) will unite behind them.
If this is what they’re up to, it’s an extremely dangerous move — but it’s not insane.
The Iranians know that the West cannot sustain a ground war on yet a third front. Furthermore, public opinion simply will not tolerate attacks in any civilian areas. They may therefore be calculating that any strikes by the UK (or the U.S.) will be on military or strategic sites; devastating, but survivable — particularly when Iran will be seen as the victim in such action.
As this incident escalates (and I think it will), the best possible tool for the West will be to increase the diplomatic and economic pressure, while carefully avoiding an armed response that would play into Iranian hands. Thus far, that seems to be the tack the British are taking.
Let’s hope they can hold that line.
(Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice)
And if it goes wrong then Iran just pissed off the British people, who may not have wanted to be in Iraq (which had done nothing to provoke them), but might be willing to go to war with a country that kills the British when they aren’t at war with them.