Revolution #85, April 22, 2007

The Britain-Iran “Hostage” Faceoff & the Trajectory Toward Confrontation and War

On March 23, 15 British military personnel were seized by Iranian forces in the narrow waterway separating Iran and Iraq at the head of the Persian Gulf. The 15 were on small craft dispatched from the British warship Cornwall. The British government claimed its forces were in Iraqi—not Iranian—waters, legally inspecting vessels bound for Iraq. They said Iran’s action was totally illegal and demanded its sailors and marines be released immediately. Bush called the Iranian action “inexcusable," and raised the tension level by labeling the British personnel “hostages”—demanding "Iran must give back the hostages” and saying: “They're innocent. They did nothing wrong."

Iran claimed the British were in Iranian waters (which some of the British personnel seemed to admit on Iranian TV). Then, on April 4, after 12 days of political threats and diplomatic sparring between the two sides, Iran released the British personnel in what it called an “Easter gift” to the British people.

While this incident ended without a military clash, it hardly showed that the Bush regime has abandoned its multi-pronged offensive or preparations for military attacks against Iran. Quite the opposite. It showed just how aggressive U.S. and British actions toward Iran are, 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. And the the U.S. and its ally 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.” The White House continues to hold five Iranian officials it seized in Erbil, Iraq on January 11. Rightwing 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 Wall Street Journal (4/5) summed up, “Despite its peaceful resolution, the incident seems certain to add more fuel to the regional power struggle unfolding across the Middle East between Tehran and Washington.”

What Were British Warships Doing 10 Miles from Iran?

The March 23-April 4 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 (Royal Navy head) 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 Uzbekistan [who was previously in charge of monitoring maritime issues in this part of the Persian Gulf], who called the British maps ‘a fake with no legal force,’ concluded in his blog, ‘The UK was plainly wrong to be ultra-provocative in disputed waters.’” (

And what exactly were these British forces doing less than 10 miles from Iran’s coast? If they were simply inspecting boats for contraband, as claimed, why did they board an Indian-flagged vessel after it had dropped off 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 (4/5) reported that the captain in charge of “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.

Britain’s Cornwall is the flagship of an anti-submarine and minesweeping battle group which 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 include 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. (And Iran, in turn, may have seized the British forces to demonstrate its own determination to respond to any attack.) The Guardian UK (4/5) reports that Iranian officials state this was the fourth such intrusion into Iranian waters in the last three months.

Full-Court Imperialist Press Against Iran

The actions of the Cornwall and U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf are part of a broad, multi-faceted full-court press 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 reports (4/3) 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 (3/27) 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.

None of these actions are in the interests of the people—in the Middle East or in the U.S. And none—whether diplomatic, economic, political, or military—are about liberating the Iranian people, ending the crushing oppression weighing on the region, or preventing the use of nuclear weapons. Rather, all are in the service of the U.S.’s imperialist agenda of tightening its killer grip on the Middle East and smashing all who stand in its way. And at the same time, Iran’s Islamic Republic, for its part, is responding to the U.S. onslaught in order to preserve its reactionary power—in Iran and to extend it in the region.

These actions are not “optional” or capricious, but are driven by the real and continuing imperialist interests, necessities, and logic that drove the Bush regime to invade Iraq. For the U.S. rulers, domination in the Middle East and Central Asian regions has been, and continues to be, foundational to their global power and sole superpower status. This is critical to the very functioning of their system—at home and abroad. And in the Middle East/Central Asia, the U.S. faces a host of problems, in particular a rapidly spreading and potentially destabilizing pole of opposition to its hegemony: Islamic fundamentalism.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was intended to deal with these impediments to U.S. interests. Instead, the U.S. quagmire in Iraq has weakened U.S. influence, fueled the spread of Islamist trends, and bolstered Iran’s regional influence. This has made the situation in the Middle East even more unacceptable to the U.S. rulers, so the Bush regime is aggressively attempting to reverse these trends, by escalating in Iraq and now threatening Iran.

The Urgent—and Continuing—Need to Reverse theTrajectory Toward Confrontation and War

The Bush administration did not push for a military escalation in this standoff between Iran and Britain. But again, 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 proceed step-by-step to try to build an international consensus against Iran, to isolate it politically, and to prepare public opinion for whatever actions it deems necessary.

And while there are divisions within the U.S. ruling class over how to deal with the roiling contradictions it faces in 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. (And divisions within the ruling class have never meant that those in charge will not go forward regardless—including to cut through or preempt paralysis, or to prevent losing the political initiative.)

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 (IAEA), charged with monitoring its nuclear sites, that it would withhold information because the agency had repeatedly allowed confident 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 the U.S. and UN demands—an acceleration of its efforts to enrich uranium, and Iranian officials warn they will abandon the whole non-proliferation framework if international powers continue to pressure them to give up their rights under existing treaties to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. The Los Angeles Times (4/3) concluded: “Months of hard-nosed U.S. political and military pressure on Iran may have further radicalized and emboldened the regime, undermining Washington’s stated aim of neutralizing the Iranian threat without resorting to war.”

One National Security Council official commented: “There is one certainty about U.S. policy toward Iran. Unless Tehran abandons its weapons program, it is headed for confrontation with the U.S., whether under President Bush or his successor.” (, 4/13) Two Iran analysts in a New York Times opinion piece, noted that the “U.S. and Iran seem to be moving inexorably toward conflict.”

Not a week goes by without new rumors of a U.S. attack on Iran: several weeks ago the Jerusalem Post reported that Russian intelligence services were predicting a U.S. surprise attack on Good Friday (April 6). Kuwait’s Arab Times has reported (4/4) the U.S. is planning an attack at the end of April. Iranian officials have stated they fear an attack this summer. The bourgeois website Swoop (4/7) 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 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.

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