The seizure of 15 British military personnel by Iran represents a serious escalation of the tensions between the occupying powers in Iraq and the Iranian state. It has been used by the regime in Tehran to strike a propaganda blow not only against Britain, but also against the US, and could be used a bargaining chip to secure the release of Iranian agents held by the US in Iraq.
However, Britain’s response to the hostage-taking has shown how limited its options are. On Tuesday 27/03/07 prime minister Blair warned Tehran that the crisis could move to “a different phase” if it did not free the servicemen, an example of empty bluster if ever there was one.
By Friday Britain had taken the matter to the UN Security Council. And what did they get?
“UN Security Council members last night agreed a watered-down statement expressing concern at Iran’s capture of 15 UK naval personnel, as the stand-off between the two countries hardened. … Russia had blocked a tougher statement that would have demanded an immediate release. … Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, said: ‘The Gulf is in such an agitated state that any action in this region, especially one that involves the navy or other military forces, must take into account the need not to aggravate the situation.’” (Financial Times, Friday, 30 March 2007)
What the Mr. Lavrov is saying here is undoubtedly true, whatever the actual motives of Russia in blocking a tougher resolution. The situation over the hostages highlights the balance of power in the region of southern Iraq, where the British forces are based. Iran is the rising local power, and the British have already indicated that they are intending to leave. Once they do leave Iran will advance its position further and there is little that Britain can do to stop it. The main obstacle to Iran’s regional ambitions was the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and, since the Americans and British have destroyed that regime, Iran has gone from strength to strength.
The Iranians are now pressing the British to leave altogether. This is made evident by the fact that “Iran earlier released a second letter purportedly from the female captive, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, questioning the UK presence in Iraq” (ibid).
It’s true that Britain got a more strongly worded resolution from the meeting of European Union foreign ministers shortly after the UN meeting, fully supporting Britain and calling for the unconditional release of the hostages. But there was little of substance to back up these sentiments.
The USA, meanwhile, has stayed in the background, watching the embarrassment being heaped upon its coalition partner without being able to do much about it in the short term. Part of Britain’s discomfiture certainly rubs off on Washington, which has once again showed itself unable to protect the military forces under its command.
All this underlines the contradictions facing the US and the British. Although there are elements of the US and British bourgeoisies that favour withdrawal, such a retreat would simply leave Iraq a prey to the surrounding imperialist powers – Iran and Syria on the one hand and the conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia on the other. The conservative states are sufficiently worried about the likelihood of an advance of the Iranian influence in Iraq that they have already indicated that they will feel impelled to support factions in Iraq to stave off such an advance. Even the elements in the US bourgeoisie who put forward the prospect of diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria as an alternate approach to the current policy must be feeling that such a prospect is receding.
The US intervention in Iraq was aimed at boosting the worldwide authority of American imperialism. The complete mess it has made of the job has weakened its credibility to an unprecedented degree, and has allowed powers like Iran to flow into the vacuum it has created. But this weakening of the US will certainly not lead to a more peaceful and harmonious world. On the contrary, the more it feels itself threatened by the growing ambitions of its challengers, the more the US will be pushed towards taking its military responses onto a higher level. The current hostage crisis is almost certainly not the spark that will ignite a new conflagration in the Middle East, but it is one more sign that the logic of imperialism is indeed pushing things in that direction.