Iran’s ‘Tonkin’ Moment in the Gulf?


I wrote the following in a piece earlier today on

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.

(Update ends).

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.

Like Lord Triesman, I think the standoff over the captured troops will have a good outcome, but, as he says, that’s far from certain right now.

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10 Responses to Iran’s ‘Tonkin’ Moment in the Gulf?

  1. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Iran is playing a dangerous game. But a very clever one. Here’s why:

    1. The Shatt-al-Arab waterways are disputed and so Tehran’s claims are unfalsifiable.

    2. Britain’s muted reaction most likely has to do with its plan to withdraw troops from Southern Iraq. This can’ t happen without Iran’s cooperation. Tehran’s capture of the sailors is a reminder to London that it is in no position to call the shots. In fact, Britain is pretty much out of the game now. (Which is why the standoff could last a long time.)

    3. On the nuclear front the anti-Iranian coalition is fraying. While Russia is sending mixed signals, India has begun to make friendly noises toward Iran.
    Not to mention South Africa. Hey, Tony, I am surprised you didn’t mention SA’s call for the a timeout at the UN and its getting mightily pissed off that it was rebuffed. This strikes me as highly significant, given SA’s ultimate hopes of UNSC membership.

    WIth Britain checkmated and India, South Africa, and some Latin American countries deserting the Iranophobic camp, a war seems increasingly unlikely.

    Ahmadinejad represents the kooky side of Iran. But let’s not forget those guys invented chess…

  2. bob k says:
    Check out the link above. If Maj General Muhammad Sultani who reportedly is the Revolutionary Guard commander of the Persian Gulf was abducted in Turkey, we see the provocations to retaliate in kind are not internal Iranian politics, but a response to an act of war by actors unknown,
    but assumed to be western intelligence agencies creating reason to broaden the war to Iran.

  3. MB says:

    I think they should have retaliated immediately against Amreican terrorism against their counsolar office in Irbil by going after those responsible.

    They also made a mistake by not responding forcefully when their top nuclear scientist was found dead and later on other acts of state sponsored terrorism was conducted against Iran by US and her allies.

    The Bush administration may be hoping to win a war of aggression against Iran but the facts and the realities on the ground indicate otherwise.

    A war of aggression initiated by US imperialism and international zionism against Iran will be defeated at a very high cost.

    On an important and very relevant issue regarding US / British overthrow of Premier Mossadegh, I would like to ask how we would react, percieve and conduct ourselves if Iran would have overthrown our governments in 1958 under any pretexts and imposed a dictatorship on us for 27 years that resulted in hundredes of thousands of people persecuted, tortured, jailed and thousands executed and murdered as we did to Iran with our governments approval and support.

    Just the way we performed in Iraq when our boy Saddam was gasing the Kurds and the Iranians and we were cheering for him and providing him with all sorts of toys.

    Shame on us. We have no right, no dignity and no honor.

  4. What this Iran nuclear imroglio has brought out to the world is that
    1.Big five are together when it comes to guarding their arms market.
    2.Big five are together when it comes to guarding their monopoly with regard to NUKES
    3.US is a power which is more interested in SELLING ARMS by creating conflicts around the world but not a power which is interested in peace.
    4,.The vehemence by which US energy secretary Bodman is parrotting that INDO/IRAN/PAKISTAN is a pipleline which will fuel NUCLEAR POWER OF IRAN!!!While all right thinking people know it will bring peace to subcontinent by bringing pakistan jehadi lobby a stake in peace in Balochistan,wazirstan area.
    5. This crisis has exposed the lack of rule of law in international relations but only power will be respected and it is going to bring in NUKES as a security in despotic regimes like Myanmar,NorthKorea,/saudiArabia,and most of the african regimes in future.

  5. Latin_Observer says:

    This is a view from Latin America. Since Mr Ahmadinejad has taken the trouble to visit Latin America several times, I think the image Latinos may have about Iran should be of some relevance to Iranians.

    Fact is, until the seizure of the 15 British personnel the image was not bad at all. Iran looked like a peaceful country seeking their own path to development while determined to preserve their dignity by not allowing themselves to be bullied by the US.

    But now that image is being completely ruined by the Iranian attitude regarding this incident. The behaviour of the Iranian forces would have been justified if the British had been deep within Iranian waters performing some hostile or suspicious activity such as taking pictures of Iranian naval installations. But in fact they were in the worst case only marginally within Iranian waters and performing a completely harmless and moreover UN-mandated activity, namely searching for car smuggling. Therefore what the Iranian guards should have done at most was to seize their weapons and tell them to go away. In other words, Iran is giving innocent customs officers in uniform the treatment they should reserve to spies.

    The Iranian government must just understand that the longer they hold the British personnel, the more Iran’s image becomes that of an unfriendly, mean, ill-willed country like North Korea. Furthermore, they must realize that the oncoming week is Holy Week for Christians, and that if the captivity of the British personnel continues through it the case is going to acquire a strong emotional connotation.

    In other words, the Iranian government must understand that they are spoiling Iran’s image in such a way that it looks as if they are playing a screenplay written by Bush and Netanyahu.

  6. Pat S. says:

    I’m with Latin Observer. While before this seizure of the sailors I was 51% optimistic that the U.S. would not attack Iran, I’m now changing that to 64% pessimistic that the U.S. will indeed attack.

    The Bush policy here has been to keep spinning the casus belli web wider and wider around the Gulf, hoping the Iranian fly would somehow catch itself in the web and be devoured. But instead of unwittingly stumbling into it, it’s like the Iranians not only saw the web waiting for them, they flew right into the damned thing on purpose. Doug Feith and Dick Cheney have to be busting in their pants over this shit. Maybe the Iranians underestimated just how itchy these dudes are for war? That seems hard to do with all that’s happened in the past six years.

    I won’t shed any tears for the collapse of the Iranian regime when the war happens, but a lot of people are going to be pretty fucked up–and dead–because a few guys in the White House can’t seem to sense the difference between “Risk” and real life.

  7. Tony says:

    War’s not going to happen. Look what happened in Riyadh today — the Bush Administration is completely isolated in the Middle East, it’s most trusted Arab allies are now saying enough is enough, slapping down Washington and going their own way, knowing the US currently has no policies capable of stabilizing the region.

    Accidents could happen, of course, but even the Brits would make sure this didn’t get to handbags stage… They’d even apologize, first, if it meant avoiding a war!

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  9. The Iranian government must just understand that the longer they hold the British personnel, the more Iran’s image becomes that of an unfriendly, mean, ill-willed country like North Korea. Furthermore, they must realize that the oncoming week is Holy Week for Christians, and that if the captivity of the British personnel continues through it the case is going to acquire a strong emotional connotation.

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