By Max Hastings, the author, most recently, of “Warriors: Portraits From the Battlefield” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30/03/07):
TONY BLAIR has been talking tough about Iran’s seizure of 15 British sailors and marines on the Shatt al Arab, the waterway between Iran and Iraq. Mr. Blair is deeply reluctant to apologize, as Tehran is demanding, for Britain’s alleged incursion into Iranian waters. Global positioning data shows that the British naval patrol was more than a mile inside Iraqi waters. It is gall and wormwood for a leader already politically crippled by Britain’s commitment in Iraq to find himself now also engaged in a confrontation with Iran.
As international incidents go, this is unlikely to prove a very serious one. After extracting every possible propaganda advantage, the Iranians will probably free their captives. But for the British, this is a painful lesson. It is rash to expose potential hostages to one of the most reckless and erratic regimes in the world.
Plenty of people in Washington would say that violent provocation of this kind shows that diplomatic engagement with Iran, as favored by Britain and other European nations, is wasted motion; that only harsh sanctions backed up by the threat of force can influence the wild men of Tehran, headed by the Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yet it is hard to punish masochists. The problem for policymakers is that Iran’s leadership positively welcomes Western threats. Almost certainly, the Castro regime in Cuba has lasted a generation longer than it would otherwise have because of the state of siege imposed by Washington. So, likewise, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s power, and that of the clerics who rule behind the scenes, depends upon sustaining confrontation.
The United States and Britain have suffered a disastrous erosion of moral authority in consequence of the Iraq war. The Blair government has been dismayed to perceive the indifference, or worse, with which its European partners have treated the seizure of its naval personnel. Britain has been obliged to water down the draft resolution that it is circulating at the United Nations Security Council, because some members rejected its original tough wording.
What should be regarded as an unanswerable case of armed aggression by a rogue state is instead being viewed by many nations as the sort of embarrassment the British should expect, given the dubious legitimacy of their presence on the Shatt al Arab.
The Iranians know all this, of course, and it fortifies their intransigence. The game they play with considerable skill is to project themselves at once as assertive Islamic crusaders, and also as victims of imperialism. They crave respect and influence. Their only claims to these things rest upon their capacity for menacing the West, whether through international terrorism, support for Palestinian extremists, or the promise of building atomic weapons.
It is often suggested that support for President Ahmadinejad is waning amid his disastrous economic stewardship. Yet whatever Iran’s internal tensions, there is little prospect that people committed to normal relations with the West will gain power any time soon.
In assessing American and allied options, there seems only one certainty. It is entirely counterproductive to respond to Iranian provocations with military threats. It is impossible for the world, and indeed for the revolutionaries in Tehran, to believe that President Bush can either launch air strikes against their nuclear operations with a likelihood of success or take ground action.
The only realistic course, even after the latest insult represented by the British sailors’ seizure, is to sustain the policy of engagement, however thankless this seems. Privately most European governments, including the British, assume that around the end of the decade Iran will achieve its purpose of building nuclear weapons. Even the so-called moderates in Tehran are committed to this objective.
For all the hard words coming out of Jerusalem, it seems as difficult for Israel as for the United States to find credible military means of stopping the Iranians. A veteran British strategist, by no means a soft touch, said to me with a sigh this week, “It looks as though we must accept that however painful are the consequences of living with a nuclear-armed Iran, this is preferable to the consequences of trying to stop such an outcome by force, and failing.”
In the eyes of many Americans, such words represent characteristic European pusillanimity, indeed appeasement. But some of us suggested when the 2003 Iraq invasion was launched that it could result in a drastic diminution of the West’s ability to address graver threats from Iran and North Korea. So it has proved.
We must keep talking to the Iranians, offering carrots even when these are contemptuously tossed into the gutter, because there is no credible alternative. Even threats of economic sanctions must be considered cautiously. Their most likely consequence would be to feed Iranian paranoia, to strengthen the hand of Tehran’s extremists. A state of declared Western encirclement could suit President Ahmadinejad very well indeed.
No sensible Westerner, committed to the pursuit of international harmony, could welcome any of this. Iran represents a menace to the security of us all, not to mention what it must be like to live under that reprehensible regime. But, in the wake of the Iraq catastrophe, never has the overwhelming military power of the United States seemed less relevant to confronting a large, relatively rich nation that enjoys considerable grassroots support in the Islamic world for its defiance of the West.
No matter how it ends, the seizure of the British sailors is likely to be viewed by most of the world as an Iranian victory. Thus it is unlikely to be Iran’s last affront to us. It is not the American way, but only patience, statesmanship and a refusal to respond in kind to outrageous behavior offer a chance of eventually persuading this dangerous nation to join a rational universe.