The voice of young liberal democrats

A Toast to British Diplomacy! by londonliberal
April 9, 2007, 4:42 pm
Filed under: Foreign Affairs

Last Thursday finally saw the safe return of the 15 British sailors taken captive by Iranian warships two weeks ago. Upon their return they were subjected to intense media scrutiny with interviews asking them to detail their experiences and questions demanding they explain their refusal to fight back against the Iranians when captured as if they were facing charges of cowardice. Undoubtedly, their capture has ignited the case for war with Iran especially when compounded with the deaths of four British soldiers, killed by bombs allegedly made in Tehran. But before we return to calling out for yet another costly and needless war, we should really take a moment, as should the sailors who have just returned, to thank the British government for a fortnight of diplomacy so skilled, I did not originally believe they could pull it off. Following the Iranians’ dramatic escalation and with stakes so high that a single miscalsulation could have led to war, the government and by that I mean the Foreign Office, still managed to control the situation and achieve their goal.

First, it is important to draw the distinction between the Foreign Office and simply the ‘Government’ as most of British foreign policy has been dominated and ineveitably botched by No 10, the two most significant examples being negotiations over EU economic reform and of course Iraq. A former former office official, based in Tehran for several years, whom I had the luxury of meeting a few years ago at university told me quite bluntly that the decision to go to war in Iraq had been solely driven by Tony Blair and his apparachiks in No 10 with literally everyone in the foreign office arguing against the move. If ever, there was a better example for all those Eurosceptics out there as to why the biggest threat to British sovereignty is not the European Union but the unbridled power of the modern Prime Minister, which only empowerment of local councils on the one hand and of the European Parliament on the other could rectify, then I have yet to see it, but I digress. FYI, this official also told me that it had already become clear to them (back in 2004) that Iran was next on the list, but then I’m not one to fuel unsubstantiated speculation, so I’ll just let that one fester in your minds instead.

So, as Mr Blair clearly reasoned that he had neither the strength nor the support to go to war for these sailors and that even if he had such an action would have doubtlessly led to their executions, he decided to leave the Foreign Office to do what they do best. Their tactics were logically based on their best assessment of Iranian foreign policy objectives and processes. For example, the capture of the sailors could have been interpreted as an ‘in your face’ act of aggression from a power that believed itself to be ready to fight and win a war in the extreme against a militarily stretched and politically fragmented western coalition. Equally aggressive public statements coming from the Iranian President that the sailors could be put on trial, prompted by accusations of British espionage and the parading of the sailors on national television admitting their wrong-doing could have been interpreted as the highest political authority making his country’s intentions loud and clear. The American administration for example has time and again taken such declarations from President Ahmadinejad as gospel, directly determining the state of bilateral relations between the two countries.

If the Foreign Office had come to the same conclusion, it would have led to either a dangerous escalation or an embarrassing capitualtion, committing both countries and their allies to positions from which they could not withdraw without provoking the extreme ire of their own people and sacrificing all their original objectives, leading inevitably to increased hostilities perhaps up to and beyond the point of war. Such a dramatic collapse of negotiations would almost certainly have risked the lives of all the sailors as well as a vast array of issues previously up for negotiation that otherwise had no link to this particular crisis, namely the nuclear proliferation question. That said, the capture of the sailors in the first place was unquestionably politically motivated -that strait of water had been patrolled by American sailors as well as British for many years yet the Iranians only chose to act now and only chose to target British personnel and not American. The embarrassing fact of the matter concerning this point is that the Iranians would never have dared arresting American personnel as either they would have fought back starting a war with the full backing of the American people (the current lack thereof I am sure is the only reason why the U.S hasn’t yet initiated a war with Iran) or the American Air Force would have literally blown Tehran back to the stone age to get their people back irrespective of the risk to the soldiers’ lives such is the ‘come back with your shield or on it’ mentality of the American military. The good news though from the Foreign Office’s perspective would have been that the Iranians’ choice of hostages automatically outlined their intention. The Iranians’ sought political concessions, such as the release of five Revolutionary Guards (they say they’re diplomats)from U.S cutody in Iraq or the downgrading of western hostilities in the form of U.S war games in the Gulf. Therefore, they were clearly banking on the Americans to stay out of it in public at least, seeing no potential risk or gain in terms of their own national interest with few if any Americans prepared to endorse a further commitment of their forces for British lives. The Europeans too, they must have calculated would have only just got round to agreeing to issue a statement once the crisis was already over considering their fraught relations with the UK of late. They therefore reasoned that should the UK capitulate, they would do a deal with the U.S to secure the release of the revolutionary Guards in return for the British Sailors and if the UK escalated, the Americans would do the deal themselves to prevent a war for which they had no appetite from breaking out.

Thus, the two key assumptions that would direct foreign policy in this instance were: 1) Iran did not want war and; 2) the buck in Iran does not stop with the President but the Ayatollahs and therefore his words must be contrasted to the actions of the regime as the delicate balance of hardliners and pragmatists is maintained. The goal of the Foreign Office therefore was to confound the Iranians’ expectations and to give the impression that Britain would go to war if necessary and that the only concession they would grant would be to order their army to stand down in exchange for the safe return of all the sailors. They could only achieve this though by securing the whole-hearted support of the Americans, without whom military action would untenable, the European Union due to the massive economic leverage they exercise over Iran and the international community who would also play a prominent role in future decisions over the sanctions imposed on Iran and its nuclear programme.

The first of these key actors to take up the British cause was predictably the international community. Always fearful of anyone taking military action anywhere -especially in response to a breach of a UN mandate such as the patrolling of the waters where the sailors were taken hostage- the UN Security Council expressed its grave concern, the language may have been watered down by the Russians and the Chinese, but to get something so close to an outright condemnation from Iran’s two biggest allies and benefactors was something of a diplomatic coup itself. However, it is not impossible to fathom why Russia and China came to Britain’s aid. China, for example, may view Iran as a political ally, manifested in their massive investment in Iranian oil supplies, but with little political capital to be gained for China by the crisis and with the economic uncertainty it provoked raising oil prices, there was always going to be a limit to China’s complicity with Iran’s actions. Although, high oil prices certainly wouldn’t bother the Russians, standing alone and vetoing a purely symbolic resolution, jeopardising their already tense relations with the West just wasn’t worth it.

So, to the EU and the US. As has already been established, the U.S had no interest in intervening in this affair and would not say let alone do anything -the war games continued throughout the crisis and they made clear from the outset none of the Iranians held in Iraq would be released- unless it cost them nothing to do so. This meant that Britain would have to get the EU on board first to put the pressure on Iran by making it clear that taking British soldiers captive would be an affront not just to the UK but also the EU with serious economic and even military consequences. This was achieved with the governments of both Germany and France summoning their respective Iranian amabassadors to demand the immediate release of the British sailors. This was furthered by Angela Merkel’s statement on behalf of all 27 members of the EU (Germany currently holds the rotating EU presidency) declaring their unconditional support for the British, reiterating the demand for the immediate release of the sailors. Only the Foreign Office with its constant record of pro-Europeanism (and anti-Americanism) could have pulled this off, surely prompting a re-evaluation of the significance of lasting relationships with our European partners, something Tony Blair will hopefully come to appreciate much more after this. In the meantime, the Foreign Office and Prime Minister were sticking to their strategy of defiance by insisting no deal would be done and intimating escalation without bluntly saying they were considering militry action.

At this point, the Iranians would have observed that their only powerful friends had deserted them, the UK was only getting more aggressive, Europe was rallying around Britain defiantly at a time when they were struggling economically with the consequences of the sanctions imposed by the UN on them for their nuclear programme and the U.S wasn’t offering any deals and wasn’t cutting back on the war games. Broadcasting the sailors detailing their ‘illegal actions’ and sending letters to their families on their behalf was only further inflaming a hostile media and by now, hardliners in their own populations were staging demonstrations outside the British embassy and drawing battle lines demanding tougher action on the sailors as public opinion across the world became more polarised. They were approaching the point of no return and were looking vulnerable. Then, and only then, did President Bush come out and condemn the Iranians for their actions, whilst simultaneously ruling out a deal, the last thing the Iranians expected or wanted.

The next day, on April 1st, the Iranians blinked first. Though still placing the honus for a resolution of the crisis on the British, they added that they were seeking a “moderate approach.” Des Browne, defence secretary, signalled that Britain was not beyond reproach yet by publicly reiterating that both countries were in direct bilateral contact. At this point, the Iranians changed spokesman, substituting the President for the foreign minister in line with their change of tone. The following day, Ali Larijani of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council that is directly answerable to the Ayatollahs, spoke directly to Channel 4 to communicate the Iranians’ desire to broach a diplomatic solution. In addition, further footage of the sailors’ ‘confessions’ was withheld because of a “positive changes” in the UK’s stance. 2 days later, the sailors were released as a gift from the President to avoid giving the impression to the hardliners that their man had been sidelined by the pragmatists. By making themselves look like the generous and forgiving nation they proclaim themselves to be and exploiting their people’s pride in Islamic and Persian traditions of hospitality and respect for foreigners, they attempted to appease the hardliners who were demanding the sailors be put on trial.

One question remains though. If capitulating early on and pursuing a deal with the Americans on the Iranians held in Iraq was an option that could have led to the even swifter release of the sailors, then why did the foreign office not pursue this as well? The answer to this at first may appear that behind the scenes, away from overt and public scrutiny that would have negatively affected public opinion, they did. For example, even though the Americans refused to do a deal on the five Iranians in their custody, one Iranian diplomat being held by the Iraqis, but who the Iranians allege was abducted by the Americans, was released the day before the British sailors. In addition, an Iraqi foreign minister stated that his government had also been seeking the release of the five Iranians being held by the U.S in order to facilitate the release of the British sailors. Furthermore, on the day the Iranians released the sailors, U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat) visited Syria to discuss how they could play a constructive role in the middle east, despite the U.S -albeit Republican- administration’s insistence that no dialogue with the Syrians or Iranians would be sought. Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, then described -just before Nancy Pelosi left- how Syria had played a key role in the resolution of the crisis with the information minister declaring that “Syrian efforts and the Iranian willingness culminated with the release of the British soldiers”. However, I would dispute this on the grounds that such revelations only emerged after the tables had been turned on the Iranians by the British. In addition, I find it hard to believe that the Syrians would have made any effort to cajole the Iranians into releasing the sailors when the political concessions Iran sought such as downgrading hostilities in the Gulf would have stood to benefit the Syrians just as much. Similarly, the Iraqi administration with its close ties to the Iran at such a contraversial time did not want to be tainted as complicit in Iran’s act of aggression once it became clear that Iran was not going to win this one. So, the two countries instead decided to show their support for the British cause to avoid attracting the ire of an reinvigorated power with most of the world on it’s side.

So, a toast to British diplomacy I say and hopefully a lesson learnt by No 10: the more bridges you build, the more your presence will be felt across the world and the more friends you will make. Tie yourself down to just one and you will make none.

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