The Iran-UK Face-Off

The March 23-April 4 standoff between Britain and Iran over Iran’s seizure
of 15 British military personnel ended without a military clash, but it
would be wrong to conclude that the Bush regime has abandoned its preparations
for possible military strikes against Iran. Quite the contrary. The incident
revealed how aggressively U.S. and British forces are acting toward Iran,
the high state of tensions in the region, and the potential for any incident—whether
planned or not—to escalate into a military confrontation. 

The U.S. “full-court press” and military buildup against Iran are continuing.
The U.S. and Britain used the incident to further vilify Iran’s Islamic
Republic. No sooner were the British personnel released than Prime Minister
Tony Blair accused Iran of “backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism
in Iraq,” and urged stepped-up international pressure against Tehran. 

The Bush regime dismissed the notion that Iran’s release of the British
soldiers showed the potential for diplomacy, arguing instead that it showed
Iran was unwilling to work with “the international community.” Meanwhile
the U.S. continues to hold five Iranian officials it seized in Erbil, Iraq
on January 11. Right-wing publications including the Wall Street Journal
and the Weekly Standard called Iran’s detention an “act of war” and agitated
for more aggressive U.S. action. Within days of the end of the standoff,
U.S. military officials in Iraq were holding briefings claiming Iran was
arming both Shiite and Sunni militias, and was responsible for killing
Coalition soldiers. 

The British Navy incident illustrates just how aggressively the U.S. and
British are acting toward Iran and how quickly they can fabricate pretexts
for further aggression. Take the maps the British produce as evidence to
try and prove their personnel were in Iraqi waters. Even U.S. military
experts admitted that neither side could prove conclusively where the confrontation
happened given that it took place in a very narrow body of water with contested
and, in some cases, uncharted borders. 

The World to Win News Service (AWTW) pointed out (April 2), “The maps the
UK government trotted out to prove that its commando boats were in Iraqi
waters were drawn up by the British themselves and have no legal validity.
Former Sea Lord Admiral Sir Alan West implicitly admitted as much in a
BBC interview (29 March). When asked how one could determine where the
maritime border is, he answered, ‘It is highly complex. A commission is
meant [in the future] to lay down the median line between the Shatt al-Arab
and agree where the various lines are. So we have the line we believe is
the correct one.’ 

Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekis- tan called the British maps
‘a fake with no legal force,’ and concluded, ‘The UK was plainly wrong
to be ultra-provocative in disputed waters.’” 

What exactly were British forces doing less than 10 miles from Iran’s coast?
If they were inspecting boats for contraband, as claim- ed, why did they
board an Indian- flagged vessel after it had dropped its load of automobiles
in Iraq? The British government hasn’t answered this question. 

It turns out they were doing much more. Britain’s Sky News (April 5) reported
that the captain in charge of the “Interaction Patrol” admitted they were
gathering intelligence on Iranian activity in the area: “Basically we speak
to the crew [of any vessel they encounter]…. If they do have any information
because they’re here for days at a time, they can share it with us. Whether
it’s about piracy or any sort of Iranian activity in the area.” This report
was withheld by Sky News until after the British personnel were released. 

The British warship Cornwall, which dispatched the craft seized by Iran,
is the flagship of an anti-submarine and minesweeping battle group that
includes several other British warships. Its intelligence gathering is
done in concert with the massive deployment of U.S. forces in the region,
which now includes two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups comprised of
dozens of heavily armed warships with attack aircraft and missiles. 

As AWTW News Service notes, “Under the command of the USS Stennis, all
of these ships are currently carrying out war maneuvers in the Gulf….
The role of the Cornwall and other British ships would be to help protect
the American strike force and prevent the Iranian government from retaliating
against other countries’ shipping in the Gulf once Iranian-bound vessels
came under attack. These so-called ‘war games’ are a rehearsal for a naval
embargo and possible combined naval and air attack on Iran.” 

Given the fact that the British knew that its forces were operating close
to (or inside) Iranian waters and could be seized (as happened in 2004),
it’s quite possible the British deliberately risked confrontation in order
to either unnerve Iran and/or test its response. The Guardian reports that
Iranian officials state this was the fourth such intrusion into Iranian
waters in the last three months. 

Both British and U.S. officials got on their high horses to denounce Iran’s
seizure. Blair called it “illegal” and a violation of international law,
while Bush cried “inexcusable” and called the British military personnel
“hostages.” Meanwhile, the U.S. had seized Iranians inside Iraq three times
this year, once with the cooperation of Iraqi government forces. All officials
were in Iraq legally and all but one is still being held without formal
charges or means of redress. The Iranian government is not being allowed
to see its personnel and the U.S. only recently allowed a Red Cross visit. 

One Iranian captive—Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at Iran’s embassy
in Baghdad seized by Iraqi Ministry of Defense forces —was let go just
prior to Iran’s release of the British military personnel. The U.S. denied
any involvement in his seizure, but the U.S. oversees the operation of
the Iraqi Defense Ministry and works closely with it. When Sharafi returned
to Tehran he said he’d been brutally interrogated and tortured with a U.S.
official present (which the U.S. denies). According to the BBC, Jalal Sharafi
appeared at a Tehran news conference and gave a detailed account of beatings,
including being whipped with cables and tortured with an electric drill.
A Red Cross official has confirmed that he saw marks on Sharafi’s feet,
legs, back, and nose. An Iranian psychiatrist said that Sharafi was suffering
from sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. 

All of this is treated by the U.S. government and media as if it is perfectly
normal and routine— barely worth mention—and certainly not worthy of condemnation
and exposure. This is a chilling illustration of the degree to which the
Bush program of illegal detentions and torture, and stripping people of
legal rights, has been normalized. 

The actions of the Cornwall and U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf are part
of a broad campaign against Iran being orchestrated by the U.S. across
the Middle East. This has included U.S. efforts to militarily encircle
Iran, to provoke instability internally, and to cripple it economically.
ABC News reported that since 2005, U.S. officials have secretly been encouraging
and advising guerrilla fighters from the Baluchi tribe in Pakistan to launch
attacks inside Iran, and their attacks have resulted in the killing or
kidnapping of more than a dozen Iranian officials and soldiers. A “Democracy
Now!” segment (March 27) exposed U.S. support for anti-government Iranian
Kurdish forces. There are reports that U.S. intelligence operatives are
working inside Iran to gather information in preparation for attacks on
Iran’s nuclear sites. 

The U.S. pushed through sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council
in December and again in March, and is engaged in an aggressive campaign
to force international corporations and financial institutions to cut off
capital to Iran to cripple its oil and industrial sectors. Across the region,
the U.S. is targeting groups with ties to Iran. The U.S. is also stepping
up its arms shipments to allies in the region, and has dispatched another
carrier group, the USS Nimitz, to the region—ostensibly to relieve the
carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, but raising the possibility that the U.S.
could soon have three carrier groups off Iran’s coast. 

The Bush administration did not push for a military escalation in the latest
standoff, but this does not mean war is off the table. The U.S. is aware
of the enormous difficulties it faces in Iraq and the dangers inherent
in war with Iran. But it is continuing to build an international consensus
against Iran, to isolate it politically, and to prepare public opinion
for whatever actions it deems necessary. 

While there are divisions within the U.S. ruling class over how to deal
with the Middle East, all sides are approaching this from the standpoint
of protecting U.S. imperialist interests in the region. Significantly,
no leading Democrat has spoken out against war with Iran and language forbidding
such a war without Congressional consent was removed from the recent war
appropriations bill. This is why the overall trajectory—while many different
contradictions are at play and war is not inevitable—remains toward confrontation
and war. 

For instance, tensions are continuing to mount over Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran recently told the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, charged
with monitoring its nuclear sites, that it would withhold information because
the agency had repeatedly allowed confidential information crucial to the
country’s security to be leaked and that in the current climate such information
could be used to further a U.S. or Israeli military attack. Iran has also
announced—in defiance of U.S. and UN demands—an acceleration of its efforts
to enrich uranium. Iranian officials warn they will abandon the non-proliferation
framework if international powers continue to pressure them to give up
their rights under existing treaties to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Not a week goes by without new rumors of a U.S. attack on Iran. In April
the Jerusalem Post reported that Russian intelligence services were predicting
a U.S. surprise attack on Good Friday (April 6). Kuwait’s Arab Times reported
(April 4) the U.S. was planning an attack at the end of April. Iranian
officials have stated they fear an attack this summer. The website Swoop
writes: “Following the May 24th expiry of the deadline for Iranian compliance
with UN demands, we will enter a more volatile period with increasing potential
for an accident…to grow into a regional confrontation.” 

All this underscores the need to build mass opposition now to any attack
on Iran and to step up efforts to drive out the Bush regime and repudiate
its entire agenda of aggressive and unending war. 


Larry Everest is author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global
(Common Courage), a correspondent for Revolution, and a contributor
Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney (Seven Stories).