Published: March 27 2007
The prospect of a military conflict between Iran and the west has been hanging over the world for months, indeed years. Most scenarios have hinged on a deliberate decision by the United States to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, as a way of thwarting that country’s apparent efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. But it is also possible that conflict will break out by accident. That threat is created by provocations on both sides – increasing the possibility of miscalculation.
The latest example is Iran’s seizure of 15 British Navy personnel – and its threat to put them on trial for illegally entering Iranian waters (allegations that are vehemently denied by the British). Tony Blair, the British prime minister, was right when he said that: “This is a very serious situation.” The plight of the British naval personnel is unlikely to lead directly to conflict. But it is part of a pattern of escalating tensions that looks dangerous.
It is up to Iran, above all, to take a step back and calm the situation. Even if the Iranians could prove their allegations that the British sailors had crossed into Iranian territorial waters, it is absurd to accuse them of “blatant aggression”. These were military personnel operating out of Iraq under a UN mandate, not staging an amphibious assault on the Iranian coastline.
It is always difficult to make definitive statements about Iranian motives, given the fractured and obscure workings of its government. But the seizure of the British sailors could well be a response to the passage of a new UN Security Council resolution, tightening sanctions against Iran and demanding a halt to its uranium enrichment programme. If so, it is a stupid response, which should be quickly reversed. Taking hostages is illegal and the threat of a show trial is repulsive.
A deliberate decision to escalate tensions in the region also carries far more risks for Iran than for the other players in this dangerous drama. The new UN resolution passed the Security Council by 15-0. Iran received no protection from Russia or China. Outside the UN, Iran is increasingly isolated. Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are increasingly open in their hostility. It is now in Iranian interests to promote diplomacy.
Opportunities for Iran to take the diplomatic route do exist. The hawks in Washington – who were pressing for military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities – are on the defensive. The diplomats at the State Department, who favour negotiations, want high-level talks with Iran and Syria, possibly next month. Any diplomatic opening would certainly be more limited than Iran wants. There would be no direct bilateral contacts and the talks would focus initially on Iraq alone. But, if they went well, they could surely be expanded to take in Iranian security concerns, maritime boundaries and – above all – the nuclear issue. Further brinkmanship is in nobody’s interests.