Saturday, 7 April 2007

Political Football - The British Hostage Crisis

Courtesy BBC news

Perusing the papers coming home from work on the train, it was interesting to read the inevitable analyses of the British hostage crises that had dominated the local media of late. Oh, and for the FIRST time EVAR, the train was FIVE MINUTES EARLY on arrival at Aberdeen. Well done Virgin trains!

On one level, this was always going to be propaganda war played on cue by both sides but on that benchmark alone it was a clear 1-0 victory for Iran.

It’s largely irrelevant whose claims one chooses to believe regarding encroachment of territorial waters – what is more important and clear was that the Iranians had planned and was determined to see through the capture of British personnel to serve their immediate strategic needs. And in this they succeeded.

The context is that Iran and the USA are in negotiations, through official and unofficial channels, on the future status of Iraq, with Iran being constantly blitzed by rumours that the Americans could be launching a military offensive in the near future. And then there is also the on-going nuclear dispute.

Whilst the western media were quick to paint the Iranians black for instigating this hostage crisis, the status and treatment of five Iranian officials held illegally and captured in a US military raid in northern Iraq since 11th January remains unknown. Sean McCormack, the US State Department spokesman stated “there’s no inclination to let them go” and the Americans have yet to give an answer to Iran regarding consular access to the five.

The creation of a hostage situation involving British personnel thus served several purposes. It demonstrated to their negotiating opposites that the Iranians still had some cards to play by throwing down the element of unpredictability and its ability to cause greater mischief entirely at their own choosing. The Americans barely need reminding of their own protracted hostage crisis with Iran in 1979 that resulted in Jimmy Carter losing his presidential office.

It helped in this particular situation that the hostages weren’t American. This meant US involvement in the subsequent dispute, if any, would be much lower key. The Iranians knew, no matter how indignant the British may get, their bite would ultimately be toothless as they do not have the potential military muscle, like the US, to do anything. This hostage act thus boldly signalled to both the Americans and British that the Iranians were not afraid of a military strike since diplomacy would always going to be the preferred route of resolution. This has the parallel advantage of strengthening the current Iranian regime in the eyes of its own people by simultaneously demonstrating the effeteness of America and Britain despite the presence of their huge military machine at their doorstep.

And after the opaque Iranian government milked the ‘bad cop’ role for all it’s worth, the true powers-to-be let President Ahmadinejad play the ‘good cop’ role by announcing a sudden magnanimous release of the hostages and showering them with ‘gifts’. Definitions aside, the Iranians thus demonstrated to the western world how a civilized nation state handles and treat hostages. Despite accusations of propaganda wiles and psychological torture meted out by the Iranians to the British hostages, it was clear their ordeal paled in comparison as to how Iraqi and Iranian detainees were and are treated by the western powers. The images seared on our collective consciousness that circulated around the world from Abu Ghraib will not be forgotten for a long time yet.

The ineffectiveness of the British government has thus been laid bare for all to see.

It was clear to all that the Iranians always held all the cards from start to finish.

There is no doubt the British military had made a tactical error that inevitably resulted in a political crisis simply by making their own personnel needlessly vulnerable. As such, the military hierarchy will swiftly need to review their operational capabilities and rules of engagement. They must minimise the vulnerability of our own troops in an already unpopular war – not only were the British personnel heavily out-gunned and were left completely vulnerable without back-up air and naval support operating in a war zone near the waters of a nation state threatened with imminent attack by the USA…the Brits had little training in conduct under capture…and above all, the presence of a young mother, 26 year old Faye Turney, in a crew so close to the front lines which handed the Iranians an immense propaganda advantage.

Both the western powers of USA and Britain, and the Iranian regime are cunning players in this complex political cat-and-mouse game. As usual, the biggest losers are the ordinary people of Iraq trapped in an unholy war, and on a much lesser intensity, the ordinary soldiers doing their duty serving the bidding of their political masters in a vast war of propaganda. To claim that only one side is supporting terrorism is to be purposefully and selectively blind and thus unwittingly fuel the cycles of conflict.

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