The "Simple Mistake"
The Iranian seizure of a British inspection and boarding party may have happened only yesterday, but structurally it is a replay of similar incidents such as the Pueblo affair and even the seizure of the US Embassy in Teheran. The provocation is symbolically serious but not actually vital. As such, the provocateur provides the challenged party with the problem of how to respond without escalating things too far.
The Cornwall's commander, Commodore Nick Lambert, said the frigate lost communication with the boarding party, but a helicopter crew saw Iranian naval vessels approach. ... Lambert said he hoped it was a "simple mistake" stemming from the long dispute between Iraq and Iran over demarcating their territorial waters just off the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that divides the two countries.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Bush administration was monitoring events. "The British government is demanding the immediate safe return of the people and equipment and we are keeping watch on the situation," Snow said.
The incident occurred as the U.N. Security Council debates expanding sanctions against Iran seeking to force Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. The U.S. and other nations suspect Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies that and insists it won't halt the program.
The Iranians may hope that seizing the British sailors may provide them with leverage in related issues. By attacking the weaker coalition partner, Britian, which has a relatively powerful Leftist domestic constituency, Teheran may be hoping to gain get the American "Surge" off their backs or perhaps gain some concession in talks over its nuclear weapons program.
If history is any guide, both the British and the US will attempt to solve this problem diplomatically, as occurred when the Chinese seized a US signals intelligence aircraft and as happened the last time the Iranians seized British personnel. However, it is also possible that given the heightened tension between the US and Iran that policymakers may interpret these actions as an escalation to which they must respond. This is exactly what happened to Krushchev when he shipped missiles to Cuba. Instead of backing down, JFK upped the ante and a confrontation that neither bargained for ensued.
The case for responding forcibly against Iran lies in the fact that, unlike the relationship between the US and China, there is no pre-existing "normal" relationship to which to return. The seizure therefore represents, not a blip in an otherwise stable relationship, but one in a series of actions between the two. How this plays out will be evident in a few days. Let's wait and see.
STRATFOR analyzes why Iran did it and what HMS Cornwall could have done to stop it, which is apparently not much.