British Sailors Held by Iran
The Scotsman reports “Foreign Office fury” at Iran’s capture of 8 British sailors when they strayed over to the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab. The Shatt is a mile-wide body of water created by the union of the Tigris and Euphrates, which then flows into the Persian Gulf. The border between Iran and Iraq lies precisely in the middle of the Shatt al-Arab, which has caused trouble between the two countries for a long time. Control of the Shatt was one of the motives for Saddam Hussein’s 8-year war against Iran in the 1980s.
The capture of the Western sailors and the issuing of a videotape of them blindfolded hearken back to the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, when Iranian activists took US embassy personnel hostage.
It is possible that the British did stray a bit over onto the Iranian side of the Shatt. But it is likely that the hardliners in Tehran have engaged in these theatrics for domestic political purposes. The committed Shiites in Iran had been absolutely infuriated by the US troops’ desecration of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in April and May, which provoked demonstrations in Tehran against the British Embassy. The problem is that the Iranian regime did nothing practical about this outrage to Shiite sensibilities, and did not want to tangle with the US army. Taking these British sailors hostage for a few days is a symbolic act of retribution by Khamenei’s government that shores up his support from the Iranian hard right. It seems likely that Iran will release them before too long.
The incident may also be intended to punish the UK for pressing Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons development, most recently in concert with the European Union.
It seems to me very likely that Iran will get a nuclear weapon. Any ruling elite in the global south with bad relations with the US can look at the difference between how the Bush administration dealt with Saddam and how it has dealt with North Korea. The difference seems mainly to be that North Korea already had a couple of nukes, whereas Iraq was not anywhere close. So Khamenei would look at that and decide that his government needs a couple of nukes to avoid being overthrown by the US, especially since Bush telegraphed his intention to do just that. I don’t see how it could be stopped militarily; the US is overstretched and in no position to attack and occupy Iran.
This is the point that Senator Edward M. Kennedy made on Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But I would emphasize the ways in which Bush’s aggressiveness have probably actually ramped up any Iranian nuclear weapons program, out of which the Iranians might have been argued under different circumstances.
Of course, when one’s neighbors, such as Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India and (de facto) the United States all have nukes, that is a pretty powerful incentive to get them, in any case.