The 15 British sailors and marines who were patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab – or Arvand Roud, as it is known in Iran – were not exactly indulging in a little bit of Rod Stewart (“I am sailing/stormy waters/to be with you/to be free”). They had their guns loaded. These would certainly have been fired against Iraqi smugglers – or, better yet, the Iraqi resistance, Sunni or Shi’ite. But suddenly the British were confronted not by Iraqi but by Iranian gunboats.
This correspondent has been to the Shatt-al-Arab. It’s a busy and tricky waterway, to say the least. Iraqi fishing boats share the waters with Iranian patrol boats. From the Iraqi shore one can see the Iranian shore, flags aflutter. These remain extremely disputed waters. In 1975, a treaty was signed in Algiers between the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. The center of the river was supposed to be the border. Then Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. After the Iran-Iraq War that this sparked ended in 1988, and even after both Gulf wars, things remain perilously inconclusive: a new treaty still has not been signed.
The British are adamant that the sailors were in Iraqi waters checking for cars, not weapons, being smuggled. It’s almost laughable that the Royal Navy should be reduced to finding dangerous Toyotas in the Persian Gulf. Some reports from Tehran claim the British were actually checking Iranian military preparations ahead of a possible confrontation with the US.
Western corporate media overwhelmingly take for granted that the British were in Iraqi or “international” waters (wrong: these are disputed Iran/Iraq waters). Tehran has accused the British of “blatant aggression” and reminded world public opinion “this is not the first time that Britain commits such illegal acts” (which is true). Tehran diplomats later suggested that the British might be charged with espionage (which is actually the case in Khuzestan province in Iran, conducted by US Special Forces).
The coverage of the sensitive Shatt-al-Arab incident in the Iranian press was quite a smash: initially there was none. Everything was closed for Nowrouz – the one-week Iranian New Year holiday. But this has not prevented radicalization.
Hardliners like the Republican Guards and the Basiji – Iran’s volunteer Islamist militia – asked the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad not to release the sailors until the five Iranian diplomats arrested by the US in Iraq were freed. They also demanded that the new United Nations sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program be scrapped. And all this was under the watchful eyes (and ears) of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
Much of the Western press assumed Iran wanted Western hostages to exchange for the five Iranian diplomats, without ever questioning the Pentagon’s illegal capture of the Iranians in the first place. Then the plot was amplified as an Ahmadinejad diversion tactic as the UN Security Council worked out a new resolution for more sanctions on Iran and as Russia told Tehran to come up with the outstanding money or the Bushehr nuclear plant it is building in Iran would not be finished.
The Shatt-al-Arab incident has been linked to an Iranian response to Washington’s accusations that Tehran is helping Shi’ite militias with funds, weapons and training in Iraq. For the record, Iran’s ambassador in Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, said there is absolutely no connection: “They entered Iranian territorial waters and were arrested. It has nothing to do with other issues.” Not surprisingly, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had to take the side of the occupiers who installed him in his post: he said the British were in Iraq invited by the Iraqi government and were operating in Iraqi waters.
This doesn’t stop people, especially in the Islamic world, questioning what business the British, as an occupation force, had in the Shatt-al-Arab to start with.
From the depths of their abysmal, recent historical experience, even the Arab world – which is not so fond of Persians – sees the US-orchestrated UN sanctions on Iran for what they are: the West, once again, trying to smash an independent nation daring to have its shot at more influence in the Middle East. More sanctions will be useless as China and India will continue to do serious business with Iran.
Tactically, as a backgammon or, better yet, chess move – in which Iranians excel – the Shatt-al-Arab incident may be much more clever than it appears. Oil is establishing itself well above US$60 a barrel as a result of the incident, and that’s good for Iran. It’s true that from London’s point of view, the incident could have been arranged as a provocation, part of a mischievous plan to escalate the conflict with Iran and turn Western and possibly world public opinion against the regime.
But from Tehran’s point of view, for all purposes British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a soft target. The episode has the potential to paralyze both President George W Bush and Blair. Neither can use the incident to start a war with Iran, although Blair has warned that his government is prepared to move to “a different phase” if Iran does not quickly release the sailors.
If the Tehran leadership decides to drag out the proceedings, the Shi’ites in southern Iraq, already exasperated by the British (as they were in the 1920s), may take the hint and accelerate a confrontation. Strands of the Shi’ite resistance may start merging with strands of the Sunni resistance (that’s what Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has wanted all along). And this would prove once again that you don’t need nuclear weapons when you excel at playing chess.