British pawns in an Iranian game
By Pepe Escobar
Times" - -- - The 15 British sailors and marines
who were patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab - or Arvand Roud, as it is
known in Iran - were not exactly indulging in a little bit of
Rod Stewart ("I am sailing/stormy waters/to be with you/to be
free"). They had their guns loaded. These would certainly have
been fired against Iraqi smugglers - or, better yet, the Iraqi
resistance, Sunni or Shi'ite. But suddenly the British were
confronted not by Iraqi but by Iranian gunboats.
This correspondent has been to the Shatt-al-Arab. It's a busy
and tricky waterway, to say the least. Iraqi fishing boats share
the waters with Iranian patrol boats. From the Iraqi shore one
can see the Iranian shore, flags aflutter. These remain
extremely disputed waters. In 1975, a treaty was signed in
Algiers between the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. The center
of the river was supposed to be the border. Then Saddam invaded
Iran in 1980. After the Iran-Iraq War that this sparked ended in
1988, and even after both Gulf wars, things remain perilously
inconclusive: a new treaty still has not been signed.
The British are adamant that the sailors were in Iraqi waters
checking for cars, not weapons, being smuggled. It's almost
laughable that the Royal Navy should be reduced to finding
dangerous Toyotas in the Persian Gulf. Some reports from Tehran
claim the British were actually checking Iranian military
preparations ahead of a possible confrontation with the US.
Western corporate media overwhelmingly take for granted that the
British were in Iraqi or "international" waters (wrong: these
are disputed Iran/Iraq waters). Tehran has accused the British
of "blatant aggression" and reminded world public opinion "this
is not the first time that Britain commits such illegal acts"
(which is true). Tehran diplomats later suggested that the
British might be charged with espionage (which is actually the
case in Khuzestan province in Iran, conducted by US Special
The coverage of the sensitive Shatt-al-Arab incident in the
Iranian press was quite a smash: initially there was none.
Everything was closed for Nowrouz - the one-week Iranian New
Year holiday. But this has not prevented radicalization.
Hardliners like the Republican Guards and the Basiji - Iran's
volunteer Islamist militia - asked the government of President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad not to release the sailors until the five
Iranian diplomats arrested by the US in Iraq were freed. They
also demanded that the new United Nations sanctions imposed on
Iran over its nuclear program be scrapped. And all this was
under the watchful eyes (and ears) of the US Navy's 5th Fleet in
Much of the Western press assumed Iran wanted Western hostages
to exchange for the five Iranian diplomats, without ever
questioning the Pentagon's illegal capture of the Iranians in
the first place. Then the plot was amplified as an Ahmadinejad
diversion tactic as the UN Security Council worked out a new
resolution for more sanctions on Iran and as Russia told Tehran
to come up with the outstanding money or the Bushehr nuclear
plant it is building in Iran would not be finished.
The Shatt-al-Arab incident has been linked to an Iranian
response to Washington's accusations that Tehran is helping
Shi'ite militias with funds, weapons and training in Iraq. For
the record, Iran's ambassador in Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, said
there is absolutely no connection: "They entered Iranian
territorial waters and were arrested. It has nothing to do with
other issues." Not surprisingly, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar
Zebari had to take the side of the occupiers who installed him
in his post: he said the British were in Iraq invited by the
Iraqi government and were operating in Iraqi waters.
This doesn't stop people, especially in the Islamic world,
questioning what business the British, as an occupation force,
had in the Shatt-al-Arab to start with.
From the depths of their abysmal, recent historical experience,
even the Arab world - which is not so fond of Persians - sees
the US-orchestrated UN sanctions on Iran for what they are: the
West, once again, trying to smash an independent nation daring
to have its shot at more influence in the Middle East. More
sanctions will be useless as China and India will continue to do
serious business with Iran.
Tactically, as a backgammon or, better yet, chess move - in
which Iranians excel - the Shatt-al-Arab incident may be much
more clever than it appears. Oil is establishing itself well
above US$60 a barrel as a result of the incident, and that's
good for Iran. It's true that from London's point of view, the
incident could have been arranged as a provocation, part of a
mischievous plan to escalate the conflict with Iran and turn
Western and possibly world public opinion against the regime.
But from Tehran's point of view, for all purposes British Prime
Minister Tony Blair is a soft target. The episode has the
potential to paralyze both President George W Bush and Blair.
Neither can use the incident to start a war with Iran, although
Blair has warned that his government is prepared to move to "a
different phase" if Iran does not quickly release the sailors.
If the Tehran leadership decides to drag out the proceedings,
the Shi'ites in southern Iraq, already exasperated by the
British (as they were in the 1920s), may take the hint and
accelerate a confrontation. Strands of the Shi'ite resistance
may start merging with strands of the Sunni resistance (that's
what Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has wanted all along). And
this would prove once again that you don't need nuclear weapons
when you excel at playing chess.
Pepe Escobar is the author of
Globalistan: How the Globalized World is
Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books,
2007). He may be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd
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