The recent story of the arrest of 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf has revealed interesting and often hidden facts regarding the current administration in Britain.
Regardless of the incredibly complicated geopolitical situation in the Middle East and in particular the mouth of Arvand river (or Shat-Alarab), the way this story has been handled by the British government shows a lack of understanding of the ‘New Middle East’ they helped to form. The fact is that following the invasion of Iraq the balance of power in that region of the world has changed dramatically; too fast even for the British to keep up with it.
Iranians traditionally saw Britain as a master of politics. There are even proverbs for that in day-to-day Persian language. I believe there is some truth in this. Back in the old days, the political interactions between the nations were ‘real’. Diplomacy was a face-to-face activity and war was rather fairer. You had to be ‘brave’ to fight and fight-back, unlike today that iron jets do the cowardly bombing of towns and villages for you from fifty thousand feet. Britain in those days was an imperial power with vast experiences in dealing with and yes colonising other nations. This came not out of accident but from meticulous planning and unmatched organisation along with a thirst for understanding the people of those countries to minimise the conflicts.
Today however things are rather more complicated. The existence of institutions such as the UN Security Council means that much of the interactions between the nations are indirect and rather ‘abstract’. The overt use and I dare say ‘abuse’ of these institutions by both the UK and the US governments especially in the past few years has meant that Britain in particular is not anymore able to use its traditional strengths in foreign policy. Direct negotiations, involving third parties, understanding the other side and getting the facts straight which are all instruments of conflict resolution, are given no chance and as such the UN Security Council is not anymore seen simply as A last instrument but as the ONLY tool in dealing with any and all problems you may have with your adversaries.
A few days into the current crisis Blair had played all his cards. He had used his ‘tough’ language by saying "no negotiations with Iran". He used the UN Security Council which only agreed to issue a press statement missing much of the vital points the UK insisted on. He went on to the EU which was more supportive but did not agree to even temporarily freeze the tax credit agreements with Iran. At the same time, the emotional card was also played by the tabloids by focusing on the one female soldier and the fact that she’s a mother. None of this however produced any results and the soldiers remain in Iran. Even the Americans who are supposedly Britain’s closest ally kept their distance as soon as there was talk of giving a helping hand by exchanging the Iranians abducted by US forces in Irbil of Iraq in January.
Back in June 2004, a similar incident happened but was resolved simply after four days; mainly because it was dealt with by the professionalism and skill that you would expect from then foreign secretary Jack Straw. This time however, it seems the ‘invisible’ foreign secretary not only lacked the skills to contain the situation and manage the crisis, but she has worsened it by speaking even less diplomatic than the commander of HMS Cornwall who gave a much balanced interview on the day of the incident.
Only after 11 days into this crisis and the government discrediting itself by creating such a huge media interest, we are hearing talks of a group of expert navy officers travelling to Iran to investigate the matter and possibly reach an agreement on the terms for releasing the soldiers; something that could have been and should have been done on the same day the incident took place.
It is perhaps time for Britain to review its foreign policy which has become more and more similar to the US: less interested in negotiation and direct talk and more into exerting outright pressure by any means necessary. In Persian we say "Why use your teeth if you can untie a knot by hand?"
About the author: Mohammad Kamaali is a founding member of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII) http://www.campaigniran.org