Friday, October 28, 2011

Post #29 - Juggling with Nitroglycerine

Pentagon criticized British for allowing sailors to be seized
In late March of 2007, Iranian forces took 15 British Navy personnel off a small boat in the waters that separate Iran and Iraq and held them for two weeks. The Islamic Republic said they were in Iranian waters when the boat was seized, the British asserted they were in Iraqi waters. President Bush, predictably, called the seizure “inexcusable.” Former British Foreign Office official and Ambassador Craig Murray said, “No.10 [Downing Street] spin-doctors stepped in, seeing a propaganda opportunity to portray Blair as fighting evil Iranians.” Within 13 days, cooler heads prevailed and a brief series of direct talks led to the release of the British sailors and marines, apparently none the worse for wear. Although they related having been held under conditions that were psychologically difficult, they were not subjected to anything like “Abu Ghraib” treatment.

President Obama ran for office on a platform that included greater reliance on diplomacy and dialogue In the case of the British sailors, a diplomatic approach did yield results. The incidents also stimulated much-needed scrutiny of the history of British-Iranian relations, American seizure of Iranian nationals and the current rules-of-engagement environment in areas bordering on Iran -- an area that sees the trans-shipment of 30-40% of the world's oil.

Journalist Pepe Escobar wrote in The Asia Times in April of that year:

"The 15 British sailors and marines...were patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab - or Arvand Roud, as it is known in Iran...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."

In a Borzou Daragahi article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times three months later, we got a rare glimpse of life on the edge of the sword:

"ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS — Iran and the United States remain so far apart on so many issues that they refuse to talk about them. But in the cramped sea routes of the Persian Gulf, U.S. and Iranian warship sailors and fighter pilots speak to each other daily.

"They have to. They're practically jostling one another in courteous games of surveillance, counter-surveillance and geopolitical posturing. 'We are operating very close to their territorial waters in a very confined space with a tremendous amount of traffic, be it the small dhows, be it the supertankers going up to the oil platforms,' said U.S. Navy Capt. Sterling Gilliam Jr., commander of air operations for this nuclear-powered supercarrier and its associated ships. 'The margin of error is smaller in that the space is more confined...'

"Even mundane changes of direction require chitchat with Iranian counterparts. When sedate gulf winds fade to a whisper, for example, this 100,000-ton carrier whips up to the 25 knots required to hurl jets into flight from the 1,092-foot flight deck. But first the vessel alerts nearby forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the organization's navy. 'We would do the standard international maritime measures,' said Capt. Bradley Johanson, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier. 'We would call them on their radio and say, 'Sir, I just wanted to let you know that we're going to be turning to port and be coming to this course so that we're into the wind in support of our flight operation.'

"The Iranians respond professionally and courteously, Johanson said: 'Thank you very much for the information. We will move off to the starboard position. We very much appreciate the heads-up.'
...the aircraft carriers, each accompanied by four or five other ships, could become big targets for Iran in the event of a war. 'It's going to be very hard to defend U.S. ships against small ships and volleys of missiles in the confines of the Persian Gulf,' said Joseph Cirincione, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. 'This is not an ideal situation for the Navy.'

"Tensions between Iran and the U.S. lie barely beneath the surface of the delicate maritime protocol...'We do worry about miscalculations,' [Vice Adm. Kevin J.] Cosgriff [commander of the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet] said. 'That's one of the reasons we want to be transparent on the radio and be talking to them a lot.'"

The Iranian government claimed a total of six instances of British violations of Iranian waters during that period (two in 2004, one in 2006 and two incidents earlier in 2007). Many saw the Iranian action as a response to the apprehension of five Iranians in Irbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq on the eve of a U.N. Security Council vote on Iran sanctions. They were captured by U.S. Special Forces who stormed a building being used as an Iranian consulate. (Later the same day, U.S. Forces almost got into a firefight with their Kurdish allies when attempting to capture more Iranians at the city's airport.) While apparently not prepared to charge them with any offense, American officials were giving “no comment” replies to press queries about the Iranians status and welfare. Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, said “nobody on the outside knows” whether they were taken into the “enemy combatant system” that the United States established after 9/11. Some international law experts questioned the legality of their detention. June 16, 2007 three other Iranian diplomats, returning to Iran from Iraq, were arrested and interrogated by U.S. forces. Although the Kurds have been solidly pro-American since the first Persian Gulf War, there was an immediate negative reaction to those U.S. moves, which apparently had been undertaken without coordination with the authorities in the Kurdish area or with the Government of Iraq. Hoshiyar Zebari, then Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs (and himself a Kurd) told reporters: “What happened...was very annoying because there has been an Iranian liaison office there for years and it provides services to [Iraqi] citizens” (reported by the National Iranian American Council, January 2007).

At just the same time as the naval incident, the U.S. was conducting war-game exercises in the area, involving two aircraft carrier groups. According to the Associated Press each group included a wing of fighter-bombers, electronic-warfare aircraft, anti-submarine craft, refuelers and command-and-control craft. In addition, six destroyers armed with guided missiles and three minesweepers took part in the exercise a stone's throw from Iranian national waters.

The British navy incident -- particularly as it preceded by only a few weeks the announcement of the UK's intention to withdraw its troops in southern Iraq altogether -- called to mind the Rudyard Kipling poem “Recessional," which celebrated British hegemony, while admitting the possibility of its eventual downfall due to hubris. Kipling wrote in 1897:

Far-called our navies melt away --
On dune and headland sink the fire --
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Nineveh was the great Assyrian capital mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Book of Nahum, 2:1-3) as having been utterly destroyed as punishment for the sins of its inhabitants. It was situated in the area now known as the Iraqi province of Nineveh, and was destroyed by the Medes, an ancient people of what now is Iran. A Christian forefather, St. Isaac, was born on the Persian Gulf and later ordained Bishop of Nineveh in the 8th century. His poem "The Merciful Heart" reminds us of what Christianity at its most radical asks of us:

The heart's pulsing ache -- oh, to have
that same heart's burning
for persons, for birds, all manner
of animal, and even for demons.

At the remembrance
and at the sight of all such creatures,
the merciful man's eyes
fill with tears which rise with a great increasing
compassion that wells
and urges his heart,
so that it grows ever
more tender and cannot endure any
harm or slightest sorrow
for anything found
in creation. Such a man
is ceaseless in tear-attended prayer,
even now, and even for
irrational animals,
and for enemies of truth,
and for all who harm it, that they may be both
guarded and forgiven.

Most of may not expect to achieve St. Isaac's level of equanimity, but we can at least not act to move the doomsday clock closer to midnight.

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