A Provocation Backfires

The release of the 15 British sailors and marines by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whose sense of showmanship was really on display here – was widely described as "bizarre" in the Western media, and yet analysts – including those hostile to Iran – are claiming it was a victory for the Iranians, and a humiliation for Britain. So – which is it?

This entire incident has been extremely odd, alright, but it isn’t the Iranians who made it so. The behavior of the captured Brits is what struck me as truly bizarre. After all, two of them went on Iranian television, and, standing in front of a map, pointed out precisely where they were picked up by their captors – in what are clearly Iranian waters. Their televised apologies, it’s true, were a violation of the Geneva conventions, but we in the West are hardly in the best position to raise that issue. As one well-known wag put it,

"We would never dream of treating captives like this – allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills. And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world – have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God’s sake, what’s wrong with putting a bag over her head? That’s what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it’s hard to breathe. Then it’s perfectly acceptable to take photographs of them and circulate them to the press because the captives can’t be recognised and humiliated in the way these unfortunate British service people are."

A funny piece, but of course the Labor party’s minister of health, the utterly humorless Patricia Hewitt, took the opportunity to lecture the British people on the public health consequences of the Iranians’ actions:

“It was deplorable that the woman hostage should be shown smoking. This sends completely the wrong message to our young people.”

Unintentional humor is always the best kind. What’s not such a laugh riot for the Brits, however, is the spectacle of their sailors contradicting the official government line about the exact location of the convoy when the fifteen were intercepted by the Iranians. Ahmadinejad is clearly concerned that they’ll be in some trouble: in his statement at the press conference announcing their release, he went out of his way to say “I would like Mr Blair’s government not to punish the sailors for acknowledging the truth." There is some basis for worry – and for believing that they were telling the truth. The Times of London reports:

"Despite widespread relief at their release, the group may face questions as to their behavior in captivity. Colonel Bob Stewart, who became famous as a hard-hitting commander of British peacekeepers during the Bosnian war, said today that he had been ‘disquieted’ by the captives’ TV appearances. ‘In the old way we didn’t used to say much when were taken as a captive – name, rank number, date of birth,’ Colonel Stewart told BBC Radio 4’s Today programe. ‘I know things have changed and I know they were not prisoners of war, but I’m a little disquieted about it.’"

The Telegraph complained editorially that "the seized personnel lost no time in admitting to having trespassed and in apologizing for their mistake," echoing Col. Stewart’s lament that the name-rank-and-serial-number tradition "has obviously been abandoned." Somehow I doubt that any of the fifteen will face charges, because their likely defense – "we merely told the truth" – would prove embarrassing to the Blair government.

In any case, that was some pretty powerful – and convincing – video that the Iranians put out there, with relaxed and completely natural-looking-and -acting British sailors basically backing up what the Iranians said from the beginning. I agree with John McLaughlin: the Brits haven’t been "entirely level with the world." Not that this would come as a surprise: as McLaughlin points out, Blair has long been among the chief manufacturers of alibis for the Bush administration.

The statements of the British sailors merely tend to confirm previously expressed doubts as to the actual coordinates released by the Brits. And now we hear the news – just released by Sky News – that they had been withholding an interview with one of the captives, Chris Air, filmed before his capture, in which he said they were indeed gathering intelligence on the Iranians. What it all adds up to, given what we know so far, is an incursion into Iranian waters that was in all likelihood deliberate.

Upon the release of the fifteen, Blair wasted no time taking advantage of what appeared to be a diplomatic opening on the part of the Iranians: instead, he raised the threat level by accusing the Tehran of having been behind a recent attack on the British that killed four in the southern region of Iraq. Far from signaling a let up in the escalation of tensions, we are bound to see more such incidents – one of which will prove to be the tripwire for war.

The Bush administration, and its British enablers, seem hellbent on war in the Gulf, and it is only a matter of time before they provoke the Iranians into crossing the line. Such a disastrous outcome could be avoided, however, if we establish whether or not this most recent incident was a provocation. I agree, for once, with National Review, which is calling on the British government to repudiate the statements of its sailors and marines. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it, however: my guess is that the whole matter of who crossed into whose waters will be quietly dropped, at least by the British side, while the 15 former captives are muzzled or otherwise intimidated into silence. Unless, of course, there is an investigation, which can establish once and for all who is telling the truth – the fifteen sailors, or their government.

This is important, because if it was an incursion, then we get into the subject of whether it was intentional. And the only way to do that is to deepen the investigation, and find out whether – or, rather, to what extent – Western governments are trying to push us into war with Iran.

Speaking of provocations: now that the Democrats are in command of Congress, can they stop ladling out the pork long enough to look into Seymour Hersh‘s allegations that U.S. tax dollars are going to subsidize al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups in Lebanon and remote sections of Iran? Or is that too much to ask?

Word is out that the same "Office of Special Plans" gang that lied us into invading Iraq is now embarked on a new project, under a new name: the "Iran Directorate." Is there such a thing as congressional oversight anymore, or am I just dreaming of a halcyon and unrecoverable golden age of American politics?

We can stop the next war before it starts – but only if we catch the War Party at their game while they’re playing it, and not after the fact, as in the case of Iraq. The Democrats are keen to cut off funding for a war that should never have started and could not have started without their cooperation: will they have the foresight and courage to defund the covert war against Iran before it becomes overt? I am not at all optimistic about this, but I’d be glad to be proven wrong.

This is being spun in the West as a "victory" for the Iranians, but it is nothing of the sort: a victory would mean an end to Western provocations, and a comprehensive settlement of outstanding issues – including the nuclear question – through diplomatic means. However, neither Washington nor London will permit this to happen, and so the Iranians have only been granted a short respite from the relentless assault on their sovereignty.

The regime-changers, after all, are still in charge: Bush is a lame-duck, but he’s still the big duck, and Blair is leaving, but isn’t yet gone. Together, these two can do a lot more damage before they’re safely out of office – and, given half a chance, they will.

The War Party may be discredited, reeling with defections, and genuinely hated by the majority of the English-speaking peoples, but I wouldn’t count them out quite yet. The drama of the fifteen captives was just the beginning: there are plenty more provocations where that came from. This one backfired, it’s true, but the danger is not past, or even decreased – because the next one may well succeed in sparking a conflict that will make the Iraq war look like a picnic in the park.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].