The Fight for the Rebound
The recent mock siege of the British embassy in Teheran by "demonstrators" hurling stones and firecrackers, pretending to be outraged at Whitehall's arrogant refusal to "apologize", was described by the Times of London as "hampering diplomatic" efforts to solve the crisis. That remark by the Times underscores how badly they misunderstand the game Teheran is playing. Teheran's game plan has worked as brilliantly as Whitehall's has been abyssmal and here's why. The principal uncertainty facing the Ayatollahs on the day they kidnapped the British sailors was how London would react. Would Whitehall respond through diplomatic channels or was this going to be treated as a crisis that would jump the green baize routine? On the day the incident took place, the Ayatollahs could not be sure. As I wrote on some hours after the events:
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.
In comments section, I suggested that the British would be best served by "going ugly early" as strongly as possible without crossing the line into overt hostilities. The strategy behind such a move would be to make the Iranians work to put the ball back into diplomatic territory.
So in my opinion, if the Brits are not going to be sucked into some paralyzing hostage crisis, they need to do something now. One possibility would be to expel all Iranian diplomats and known agents from the UK. That would break the spell without necessarily escalating into warfighting. Some of those agents could also be detained under the British preventive detention. Then it would be even stevens with the ball in Ahmedinajad's court. Then it will be his turn to squirm and decide whether five and not six shots were fired from the magnum .44.
But as events transpired, Whitehall telegraphed that it was going the diplomatic route by first going to the EU, then to the UN, which of course required that its Embassy remain in Teheran. The Ayatollahs must have breathed a sigh of relief at that moment. Because now they knew which route the British were going to take. And unsurprisingly the wheels came off the British wagon within days. The EU threatened to take appropriate action. The UN spent a whole day deliberating whether to issue a statement expressing "concern" over the British hostages instead of taking the opportunity to "deplore" Iran's actions. Very shortly after the British committed to going down the diplomatic track, the Ayatollahs knew Whitehall was up against a dead-end. Mark Steyn, writing in the the Chicago Sun-Times put it succinctly:
Even Oxford and Hoover's Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most indefatigable of those Euro-boosters, seemed to recognize the Iranian action was a challenge to Europe's pretensions. "Fifteen Europeans were kidnapped from Iraqi territorial waters by Iranian Revolutionary Guards," he wrote. "Those 14 European men and one European woman have been held at an undisclosed location for nearly a week, interrogated, denied consular access, but shown on Iranian television, with one of them making a staged 'confession,' clearly under duress. So if Europe is as it claims to be, what's it going to do about it?''
Short answer: Nothing.
OK, well, how about the United Nations? Those student demonstrators want the execution of "British aggressors." In fact, they're U.N. aggressors. HMS Cornwall is the base for multinational marine security patrols in the Gulf: a mission authorized by the United Nations. So what's the U.N. doing about this affront to its authority and (in the public humiliation of the captives) of the Geneva Conventions?
Short answer: Nothing.
So having received their "short answer", this certainty totally devalued the naval exercises by the USN in the Persian Gulf. However menacing the fleet off their shores might be, the leadership in Teheran knew, with absolute certainty not only which way "the British were coming" but that they were going to miss. It was a little bit like basketball, where in the beginning you have a nervous moment figuring out whether your opponent is going for a layup or take a jumpshot. But once he takes his jumpshot -- and misses -- you can forget about everything except going for the rebound. The Iranians saw Tony Blair take his jumpshot and from the arc, they knew it was going to miss.
Teheran is doing well because they are not playing the diplomatic game. In fact, they are violating every rule in the diplomatic book. Threatening to try uniformed men as spies, demanding apologies from victims of what was essentially a cross-border snatch operation, displaying their captives on TV. And now, pelting the British embassy with stones and firecrackers. They are punching entirely below the belt while their opponent is locked into a Marquis of Queensbury stance. That's asymmetrical warfare. Here's what one demonstrator outside Her Majesty's Embassy said:
One demonstrator gave warning from a podium that the British Embassy could face a similar fate to that of the US mission in Tehran if “Britain keeps on speaking nonsense”, drawing cheers from the crowd. In 1980 Islamist students stormed the US compound taking American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
By committing to the diplomatic game, Britain not only gave Teheran advance knowledge of what they would do, they absolutely guaranteed the availability of potential British hostages since an Embassy would have be maintained to carry out the diplomatic minuet. And as demonstrator quoted above emphasized, they can have a hundred more hostages anytime they please. As long as Britain behaves predictably Teheran can continue to string it along and promise a solution right around the corner, until finally Her Majesty's Government is so exhausted it will agree to any humiliation to get the sailors and marines out. But as I indicated in my basketball analogy, there's the still the rebound. Britain should not forget the rebound. Now that the diplomatic basketball has rimmed out, what Britain may consider doing now is what I suggested in the first place. Take the whole thing off the diplomatic track without initiating any overt hostilities.
Whitehall should withdraw the entire British diplomatic mission from Teheran and deal with the Ayatollahs through their representatives to the United Nations; they can expel every Iranian diplomat and official from the UK. And if possible, they should convince their European partners -- for whatever they are worth -- to do the same. Make the Ayatollahs beg for a diplomatic solution. Make them ask, "what's next?" Make them beg the British to talk to them. At the minimum this will create uncertainty in Teheran. It forecloses nothing, even a return to diplomacy. And in that atmosphere of uncertainty, the naval force in the Gulf will becoming truly menacing. They should have done this from the first day, in my layman's opinion. But hey, every day is the next day of the rest of our lives.