Michael Spies

It should be no surprise that the media coverage in the west on this has limited itself to a superficial recap of the narrow propaganda points put out by the US and UK governments- basically parroting outrage at Iran’s parading of the soldiers in front of the media and emphasizing that Iran is interfering with a UN-authorized operation. Given that most of the diplomacy is happening outside the view of the public, it is even more difficult than usual to discern what Iran’s intention’s might have been and what the significance or consequences of this might be, but it is possible to connect up the dots to come up with some plausible theories.

Thought 1: The first thing we can exclude is the knee-jerk comparison to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. From my perspective the current situation represents more a sign of an impending conflict, rather than an incident that will lead to conflict. While this move certainly heightens existing tensions, the Iranian conduct here has been very measured and deliberate. Unlike the nuclear situation, where it’s been very obvious there are multiple factions vying to push their own agendas, here the regime has largely been able to speak with one voice, and that voice generally has not been coming from Ahmadinejad, though his often-incendiary comments tend to attract the lion’s share of the coverage. Other items that point in this direction are the facts that Iran’s video releases of the soldiers have been broadcast in Arabic - so not for a domestic audience - and their extensive efforts to manipulate perception of the crisis through the media: the (botched) attempt to provide alternative coordinates for the capture; the steady progression of letter releases and video confessions; etc.

So what’s going on?

As this crisis has been unfolding, the AP has reported on a purportedly confidential letter from Iran to the IAEA, where Iran cites the threat of a U.S. attack as rationale for its curtailing of cooperation with the Agency. Iran’s perception of a threat from the U.S. is not a new development and in the context of the nuclear crisis can be traced back to May 2003 when Iran first offered it’s “grand bargain” to the U.S. through diplomatic channels. Here, chief among Iran’s goals was to obtain security assurances from the U.S., something that has been conspicuously absent from all proposals made by the E3 and P6 to Iran, and also something the Bush administration has explicitly ruled out regardless of Iran’s response to the nuclear question.

Thought 2: Iran’s actions can be read as it taking action to better position itself internationally in the face of what some in Iran view as an inevitable confrontation with the U.S. It has been no secret that the U.S., supported by Israeli intelligence, have been conducting military operations inside Iran for several years, initially to turn up evidence of Iran’s alleged nuclear duplicity, but more recently to gather information on potential targets and to “promote democracy.” In response to the present hostage crisis, Iran’s official news agency has released a list of alleged violations of Iranian territory by the UK Navy. A letter sent by Iran to the UK embassy in Tehran echoed these allegations. Given Iran’s historic animosity and lingering suspicions of Britain (and the fact that the UK was the only major power to back the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq), it’s not a difficult stretch to believe they see a British role in any future military confrontation.

But could Iran’s actions be seen as a calculated effort to undermine any British contribution to U.S. war planning? Beyond that, could it even be aimed at preventing the formation of a second “coalition of the willing?” The present crisis has certainly been an embarrassment for the UK government. But would this embarrassment be enough to deter it from further “provocative” military actions on Iran’s borders? Certainly at the very least we can expect the British Navy to be a bit more cautious when it comes to future operations near Iranian territory. And the tepid UN response to the British demand for strong Security Council action suggests that Iran has managed to keep international opinion on its side, although this point is unashamedly ignored by the Western media.

Although some attention has been paid to the theory that Iran’s actions are in response to the U.S. raid in January of its consulate, and the arrest of five staff members purportedly associated with the Revolutionary Guard, it is perhaps more reasonable to see that connection as nothing more than a potential face-saving solution and not a motivation. The real objective here is for Iran to puff out its (war) chest, draw a line in the sand (or waterway in this case), and to broadcast the unequivocal message that it is not intimidated by the U.S. military buildup or even the very real and ever-escalating prospects for armed conflict. Had the Iranians attempted this gambit with U.S. forces, by now we would have be one week into the next regional war. Anticipating the cautious and measured response of the British, perhaps the Iranians are also trying to signal that the present course of the U.S./Iranian conflict is leading to war. So if the British are truly keen to avoid this outcome (as they have been very careful to rule out in the context of the UN), the message here is that a badly needed negotiated solution will required real diplomacy, not the type conducted in the shadow gunships.