I wrote the following in a piece earlier today on TIME.com:
But the outcome of the standoff may well depend on the strategic calculations of the Iranian leadership. Seizing the British troops a day before the U.N. Security Council voted on sanctions against Iran over the nuclear standoff was widely interpreted as Iran sending a none-too-subtle reminder of its capacity for disruption at the epicenter for the global oil economy. Oil markets certainly took the hint, with prices scooting up to their highest this year on Friday following news of the Iranian action.
But a number of Middle East analysts have also suggested that Iran may be intending to use the British personnel as a bargaining chip to seek the release of a number of Iranian officials currently being held by the U.S. inside Iraq. If so, that might prove to be a reckless gamble, precisely because the Bush Administration has demonstrated a far greater appetite for confrontation with Iran — as suggested by the capture of Iranian operatives in Iraq in the first place.
Those within the Iranian leadership advocating caution and pragmatism would point not only to the dangers of provoking the West, but also to a relatively positive diplomatic outlook: The new U.N. sanctions are only a mild intensification of those previously adopted, and the debate over them revealed important rifts — not only are key players such as Russia, China and the EU reluctant to dramatically increase sanctions and eager to return to negotiations with Iran, but key players in the developing world such as South Africa and India have more aggressively stressed Iran’s right to nuclear energy. So even as Russia reportedly squeezes the Iranians by delaying the delivery of fuel to the Bushehr nuclear reactor — although both sides insist this is simply a dispute over payment — Moscow seeks a diplomatic compromise rather than a gradual escalation of sanctions.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the national security council on whose counsel he relies on such issues, face an important judgment call. The outcome of the standoff over the British marines may be largely determined by whether the voices of pragmatic accommodation prevail over those of confrontation in Iran’s chambers of power. And that, in turn, may well determine whether the nuclear standoff is to be resolved without confrontation.
I agree with the points made by Bernard Chazelle in the comments below, particularly his insights on Britain’s dependence on the Iranians now that they’re withdrawing from southern Iraq. Still, I’d suggest that prolonging the crisis would play into the hands of the U.S. hawks, even though the Brits have no interest in confrontation.
The response to Iran’s capture of 15 British soldiers in the contested waters between Iran and Iraq will be an important indicator of the likelihood of a U.S. war with Iran. And right now, I’d say it suggests that U.S. military action against Iran remains unlikely, although far from impossible.
For those pushing for war, the incident certainly offers a crisis worth exploiting in the hope of ratcheting up the appetite for confrontation on both sides. U.S. officials certainly rushed to tell anyone who would listen that this was some sort of provocation by that rogue Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is also causing all that trouble in Iraq, and Lebanon, and so on. The same line was taken by the Saudi paper Asharq al-Awsat, which argued that it had been planned in advance by the Revolutionary Guards and the supposedly mysterious Quds brigade to capture the Brits as bargaining chips to seek the freedom of Iranians held by the U.S. inside Iraq.
But the temperature of statements coming out of Britain suggest otherwise. The Brits have insisted all along that they were most certainly in Iraqi waters, although they initially conceded that the Iranians may not see it that way — after all, this happened in 2004, and the British personnel were returned after three days of starring in Iranian propaganda newscasts. While Tony Blair toughened his talk Sunday, insisting that there was no mistake, the Foreign Office Minister Lord Triesman kept a diplomatic tone, noting “These things are always very difficult. They are delicate discussions. My belief is that they will come to a good outcome, but you can never be certain.”
Britain has long made clear its opposition to military action against Iran, essentially taking the option “off the table” while the U.S. continues to insist that it’s still “on the table.” If these troops had been American, the drums of war would have reached a crescendo.
The timing of the incident may well have coincided with the UN Security Council move to slightly increase the level of sanctions against Iran, in which context it could be read as a message warning of Iran’s capacity for disruption. The extent to which Iran’s leadership, or even a faction of that leadership, are intending to use this issue in this way will be measured by the duration of the crisis: If the Iranians return the Brits after a couple of days, as they did in 2004, that will signal an intent in Tehran to avoid ratcheting up a confrontation with the West. If the standoff is drawn out, it will signal a readiness on Tehran’s part to push confrontation to another level, confident that it can prevail.(That, of course, would be an extremely reckless gamble, under present circumstances.) But the capture of the soldiers may just as easily prove to be based on a mistake as to where Iraqi waters ended and Iranian waters began, as the British officer in charge of the operation suggested. Although Britain insists its troops were in Iraqi waters and Iran says they weren’t, Iraqi officials seem to be disputing the British claim. Update: Iraq on Monday formally backed the British position and urged Tehran to release the captive Brits.
More likely, it may be a jab aimed at showing a tough face in response to mounting U.S. pressure.
Much will depend on the actions of both sides in the coming days. Thus far, the temperature of reaction in the West suggests little appetite for confrontation. Indeed, despite passing a mild increase in sanctions over the nuclear issue, the Europeans and the rest of the international community are pushing hard for a return to negotiations with Iran, in search of a grand bargain on the nuclear issue. But should the Iranians, perhaps motivated by domestic balance of power considerations, resort to grandstanding demagoguery — by, say, carrying through on their threat to put the captured Brits on trial — they would be playing into the hands of Dick Cheney and the party of war.