The seizure of 15 British sailors and marines by Tehran is most telling about its leadership.
At the time of the incident, the Brits were operating outside the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway a 125-mile channel separating Iraq and Iran having just inspected a merchant ship for contraband when swarmed by Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) boats and arrested.
The center of the waterway as the dividing line between the two countries was established by a 1975 treaty abrogated in 1980 when Saddam invaded Iran. No new treaty has been signed by the new Iraqi government and Iran. Satellite positioning clearly placed the British on the Iraqi side, despite Tehran’s claims they had entered Iranian waters in an act of “blatant aggression.” The Brits operated with Iraqi authorization and pursuant to a U.N. mandate. This begs the question was the Iranian plan of action well-conceived or more of a shoot-from-the-hip act of aggression involving little concern for international repercussions?
An early glimpse into President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s mindset sheds some light on this. Immediately after the Islamic Revolution swept the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979, Mr. Ahmadinejad, then 23, joined an ultraconservative student group plotting the U.S. Embassy seizure in Tehran. When first discussed among the group’s membership, Mr. Ahmadinejad pressed to seize the Soviet Embassy too an idea rejected by the others.
This suggests while other group members apparently feared a double embassy seizure might provoke a more forceful or joint response by Washington and Moscow, Mr. Ahmadinejad gave such consequences no thought. We see, even at an early age, he was driven to act aggressively against an enemy, exercising little rational reflection of the consequences.
The incident reveals too Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comfort level with and perceived loyalties of his military commanders and senior government officials. He has nurtured a relationship with the IRGC by directing lucrative government contracts to its construction division; he has been quietly moving former IRGC commanders into prominent government positions; he has been carefully assigning operational responsibilities of critical military facilities to his IRGC cronies. He clearly feels he will be allowed, unlike our own president, to deal with Iran’s enemies as he sees fit.
Also telling is that IRGC, rather than regular naval forces, seized the 15 Brits. Iran has two military forces its regular forces and the IRGC. The latter was formed in 1979 as the former’s loyalty to the shah made it suspect. The IRGC commander reports directly to the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Thus, this action had to be sanctioned by him.
Finally, also telling is Iran’s double standard. In 1979, we saw the Islamic Revolution ensconce a mindset in Tehran representing a whole new and irrational way of looking at the rest of the world. That year, the Iranian government, in its own act of “blatant aggression,” violated international law, invading and seizing U.S. territory (the U.S. Embassy in Tehran) in the only loss of U.S. territory since World War II. Embassy personnel were arrested, paraded around blindfolded, threatened continuously with death and, after 444 days, finally returned to the United States. Iran sees the world as its oyster, adhering to the perception no nation has a reciprocal right to violate its territorial sovereignty.
One of Britain’s greatest naval heroes, Lord Nelson, lost an eye in battle. In 1801, that loss proved useful in the early moments of another battle when Nelson’s senior, losing his nerve, signaled Nelson to retreat. Informed by his aide of the signal flag, Nelson knew this was the time to fight not flee. He placed the telescope to his blind eye, informing his aide he saw nothing, sailing off into battle and victory.
With his good eye, Nelson saw the fight must be taken to the enemy; with his blind eye he “saw” those who feared doing so.
The British response to yet another illogical and illegal act by Mr. Ahmadinejad has been Chamberlainesque. A stronger response was warranted from the 15 Brits at the time; a much stronger response is warranted now from their government. The question for Tony Blair is through which eye will he choose to focus in responding to this blatant act of aggression by Tehran.