Until Revolutionary Guards abducted 15 British sailors and marines at gunpoint last week, the war between Iran and the U.S. and Britain had been confined to covert operations. These included kidnappings of Iranian intelligence operatives by American and Iraqi forces on the one hand, and Iranian terrorist attacks on U.S. soldiers on the other. Furthermore, the U.S. has probably been encouraging attacks on military targets in Iranian Baluchistan. The initial response in Britain and elsewhere to the latest Iranian provocation was muted. It is now clear, however, that this operation was not merely a repeat of previous Iranian shenanigans in the Gulf.
It might all end well in the end, but there is something quite different afoot here. In an earlier post, Noah K remarked on the obscurity of the "game of brinkmanship" played by the Iranians. It certainly came as a big surprise. To me, it looks like some radical elements in the Iranian regime are running the show; the preposterous demands for a British apology, and the manipulative use of the captured troops are evidence of that. It seemed possible at the beginning that the Brits might still bow to these ridiculous demands. But the publication of a second letter by the female sailor, obviously dictated by an Iranian interrogator, and the refusal to release her after all, might arouse even the phlegmatic British public. Let's remember that the Second Lebanon War started with the kidnapping of two soldiers by the Iranian-backed Hibullah, also suspiciously close to important deliberations about the Iranian nuclear program. British Prime Minister Tony Blair obviously did not want to walk into a trap, hoping instead that a calm response would do the trick. But things are not looking so great now, especially if it is true that the radicals are in command.
Given how serious the situation appears, it is strange that there have not been more statements by the allies. There has been hardly any saber-rattling from the Americans, for example. The quiet is rather eerie.
The rebuff that the British received at the Security Council, where Russia, China, and possibly others apparently scuttled a sharper condemnation of the incident, which would have declared that the British troops were in Iraqi not Iranian waters, was not widely publicized. Maybe the Russians and the Chinese were worried that an explicit judgment against Iran on the location of the British troops would have provided the Americans and the British with sufficient casus belli that could be invoked by them further down the line. As scary as it sounds, I think that the U.S. is very close to war with Iran right now. It might all blow over, but only if the Iranians flinch. But the Americans and the British will surely make a show of force in the coming days, with the hope that the moderates in Iran will compel the radicals to back down.