By MARTIN WALKER
UPI Editor Emeritus
PRAGUE, Czech Republic, March 28 (UPI) — We have seen this movie before. One of the West’s leading statesmen, and a powerful advocate for human rights, is deliberately humiliated by hostage-seizing Iranian radicals. Moreover, the Iranian radicals believe they can get away with it because they know perfectly well that the Western leaders are constrained by their own moral code to abide, as far as they can, by international law.
An Iranian hostage crisis is the common factor between Britain’s Tony Blair in 2007 and the humiliated U.S. presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1979 and 1980. The radicals of Tehran, whether the young student hotheads of 1979 who seized the U.S. Embassy or the middle-aged Revolutionary Guard commanders of today, believe they have stronger nerves and more political will than the leaders of the West.
They were wrong before, and they could be wrong again. Carter made a bold effort to free the U.S. hostages with a daring landing deep inside Iranian territory, with Special Forces then supposed to hijack trucks, drive to Tehran, take the embassy, free the hostages and fly out again. It was a very risky plan, and it failed at almost the first hurdle, when two helicopters collided in the dust storm thrown up by their own rotor blades, and the mission was aborted. The world remembers Carter’s failure, rather than his courage in trying the plan.
Special Forces operations have come a long way since then, and Britain’s elite SAS troops are among the world’s best. A rescue mission will always be an option. But the West has other assets, and the entry into the Persian Gulf this week of a second U.S. aircraft carrier task force, led by the USS John C. Stennis, was a reminder to Iran of just how much force is now being arrayed against it.
This week’s exercises represent the largest assembly of military force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With 15 warships and more than 100 military aircraft maneuvering just off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, the message to Tehran could hardly have been clearer.
“If there is strong presence, then it sends a clear message that you better be careful about trying to intimidate others,” Capt. Bradley Johanson, commander of the Stennis, told reporters. “Iran has adopted a very escalatory posture with the things that they have done,” he added.
The message may have been sent. But the Iranians either refuse to hear it, ignore it, or take threats without action as yet another sign of Western weakness and disarray. They do not seem to follow the usual processes of diplomacy or logic. And Iranian officials lie routinely, as Pierre Goldschmidt, formerly deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, details in “Correcting Iran’s Nuclear Disinformation,” a new study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Iranian officials are trying to portray Iran as a victim of Western neo-colonialist attitude, arguing that the West wants to deprive Iran of its inalienable right to reap the benefits of nuclear energy. The reality is that Iran is a victim of its own specific behavior,” Goldschmidt notes, citing the report of Mohamed ElBaradei to the IAEA Board of Governors, which said bluntly: “It is clear that Iran has failed in a number of instances over an extended period of time to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement” and “in the past, Iran had concealed many aspects of its nuclear activities, with resultant breaches of its obligation to comply with the provision of its Safeguards Agreement.”
So what do Blair and his American allies do now? Blair has talked of the crisis going into “a new phase.” This appears to mean publishing the evidence from satellites and global positioning systems that demonstrate that the British sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters when the Iranians launched what looked like a very carefully planned attack in overwhelming force. The Iranians were given the opportunity to say it was all a misunderstanding and to return the sailors and boats, and they turned it down, clearly preferring escalation.
It is always useful to have a strong legal case, and it is sensible for Blair to use the platform of the United Nations to demonstrate that Iran was in the wrong. The real question is what comes next, bearing in mind that Iran has gotten away with kidnapping and humiliating British troops in the past, forcing them to make “confessions” on videotape before being freed. Having swallowed Iran’s bullying tactics in the past, the British should not be surprised if the Iranians expect more craven behavior, particularly since the captured crew includes a woman sailor, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, with a 3-year-old daughter at home.
The Iranians may be misjudging the mood in Britain and in the United States. Blair does not want to be remembered like Jimmy Carter, as a nice but deeply ineffectual chap who let his country be humiliated by the radicals of a rogue state. And George Bush does not want his historical legacy to be Atomic Ayatollahs. It is bad enough that the Bush presidency turned Iran into the regional superpower by destroying Iraq, but even worse to be known forever as the man who allowed Iran to go nuclear.
The standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been the world’s top crisis-in-waiting for the past year and more. And the realization that military strikes would almost certainly send the oil price soaring way above $100 a barrel has created a misleading sense of optimism that the weakened Bush administration could not take such risks. Those who know Bush best say this is a fundamental misunderstanding of his Texan character. The lurking Iranian crisis could now be coming to a head because Tony Blair does not want to pass into retirement as scorned as Jimmy Carter, and because Bush viscerally rejects the idea that he could be remembered not just as an incompetent, but as an appeaser.
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