Just over a week ago, on March 23rd fifteen Royal Navy Personnel operating in Iraqi waters under a United Nations mandate were seized by the the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This almost certainly unlawful act has received condemnation across the globe. Although there has been surprisingly little condemnation from Russia and China and a weak message from the United Nations security council indicating their “grave concern.”
The captured sailors have been paraded on Iranian TV, a clear violation of the Geneva convention. The world has long known Iran is capable of such acts, but the question is why they would do so.
One answer may be that it was a brilliantly shrewd move by the Iranian government to distract the Iranian people from their economic woes. The Iranian economy has been in dire straights lately with inflation and unemployment on the rise. These economic woes has spread discontent among the Iranian people. By dramatically kidnapping British sailors and claiming they “invaded”, Iranian waters would definitely take the minds of Iranians off their economic problems.
The seizure of the sailors has also made Western investors nervous and driven up the price of oil. Iran’s economy is very dependent on the price of oil, as it is their main export. By driving the price of oil up, their economy as been aided. If that was the Iranian governments intention, then they have executed a brilliantly calculated plan to divert the attention of their subjects from their economic problems, while also aiding their ailing economy.
Another possible reason is diplomatically shrewd. Britain is the United States’ greatest ally, but Britain is not the great power it once was. The sun has set on the British Empire and she has been relegated to the status of a second rate power. Britain does not have the resources to fight a war unilaterally against Iran. Although Blair has received the support of the European Union, he must make the United Nations Security Council stand forcefully on the issue in order to release the sailors. By going after the weaker part of the coalition, Iran has made itself look powerful in the eyes of its Middle Eastern neighbors, is most likely secure from any conflict for the time being, and made itself appear to be the champion in the fight against the “US and British Dictatorship”.
By going after British, not American naval personnel the Iranians craftily manipulated the changing American political climate. Americans have become increasingly discontented with Republican leadership, the war in Iraq, and especially the Bush administration. Americans do not even want to finish what was started in Iraq, much less get involved in a conflict in Iran. Due to American public opinion, starting a war in Iran over British sailors would be at best political suicide for Bush, and at worst grounds for impeachment.
A third reason for the Iranian seizure is not as crafty nor beneficial to Iran as the first two. Recently Iran was slapped with sanctions by the United Nations for refusing to abandon its nuclear program. Iran’s leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a megalomaniacal demagogue who perceives everything as a battle between the United States and Iran. The sanctions imposed by the United Nations must have infuriated Ahmadinejad, so he must have tried to figure out a way to hit back. By accepting the sanctions and taking no action, he would lose face in Iran’s conservative Islamic government.
By striking out against the British he would be viewed as fighting back against “imperial” powers and the United Nations’ sanctions in Iran, while being viewed as an oppressive and unstable ruler in the West. By seizing the British sailors, Ahmadinejad was able to keep up his role as a defender of Iran from the “agents of the US and British dictatorship”.
Also, Iran may have been hopeful of a trade for five Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured in Iraq. Although the U.S. and the UK have made it clear that a trade is out of the question, the Iranians may have been hopeful of such a trade in the beginning of the negotiations.
By capturing the British sailors Iran has been able to gain face among the Anti-US groups all over the globe, distracted its people from internal problems, improved their economy, and fought back against the UN sanctions. Although almost all free countries all over the world has viewed the seizure as an illegal act and condemned Iran’s actions, Iran is almost certainly not worried about how they are viewed in the West. Whatever their intentions were, Iran’s move has been overwhelmingly successful by these standards.