Hostage crisis and reactionary schemes

Without doubt, Iran's capture of the 15 UK sailors and marines - and then their eventual high-profile release - was a humiliation for British imperialism. And the subsequent row about whether some of the service members, especially Faye Turnway, should have sold their story to the mass media for large amounts of money has further soiled the entire incident for many in the UK establishment. Eddie Ford comments

Last week, as readers will know, Iranian television broadcast pictures of a smiling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his presidential palace, chatting and shaking hands with the also smiling service crew - all, apart from the headscarfed Turnway, wearing nice, new, crisp Iranian suits, as opposed to military uniform. As part of this carefully orchestrated display of magnanimity, which saw Ahmadinejad awarding colourful medals to the Iranian commanders responsible for detaining the UK military personnel, Ahmadinejad declared that, although the British sailors and marines had "invaded" Iranian waters, they were being released as a "gift" to Britain - in order, he claimed, to mark both the prophet Mohammed's birthday on March 30 and the upcoming Easter holiday. Previously, at a news conference in Tehran, Ahmadinejad had attacked at some length the western powers for their approach to the Middle East - then slipped in, almost at the last minute, the fact that the UK captives were about to be released.

Of course, we do not know at this stage whether the capturing, or kidnapping, of the UK service personnel was ordered and organised centrally by Tehran itself, or whether it was a relatively spontaneous initiative by local (Revolutionary Guard) forces on the ground. But, for sure, once the UK marines and sailors were safely in Iranian hands, the regime in Tehran made a conscious decision to take political advantage of the situation.

Faced with increasing pressure at the United Nations, a teachers' strike involving tens of thousands, continued nationalist/religious unrest amongst the Baluchis, Azeris, ethnic Arabs, Kurds, sunni dissidents, etc, Ahmadinejad knew that by picking on the 'little Satan' - rather than the far more formidable 'big Satan' - he could (at least partially) offset some of these tensions by manipulating popular opinion. Understandably, thanks to the long history of blatant colonial/imperialist interference in Persia/Iran - not least the US-UK backed coup d'etat in August 1953 against the democratically elected and massively popular government of Mohammad Mossadeq - anti-British sentiment is deeply ingrained in the Iranian cultural-political psyche.

Hence, the calculations went, if the UK tacitly accepted the situation and opted for a diplomatic, non-military response - as was always near certain - then the Ahmadinejad regime would come up smelling of roses. Alternatively, if the UK government had had a rush of blood to the head - perhaps egged on by various hawks in Washington - and engaged in some sort of symbolic military action against Iran, such as putting the Royal Navy on a more aggressive footing in the Gulf, then the Tehran government could have had a very protracted political-propagandist field day, portraying itself as the innocent victim of yet more diabolical machinations by the 'little Satan'.

Naturally, Blair righteously insisted that no diplomatic or political deal had been done to secure the release of the UK sailors. However, in the next breath, he declared that "new channels of communication" had been opened up with the Iranian regime, and offered the view that it was surely now the "right moment" to reflect on relations with Iran. And Ahmadinejad himself has said that he was reassured by British representatives that "the incident would not be repeated".

So you could say a non-deal deal had been done with Ahmadinejad by the UK government. On top of all that, speculation is still rife over whether the release of the UK captives had anything to do with recent developments in Iraq, where an Iranian envoy has reportedly been given access to five Iranians previously captured by US forces. Additionally, Syria has cagily revealed that it had been mediating between Iran and the UK over the issue of the marines and sailors.

But whatever the exact case, Ahmadinejad seems to have been emboldened by the whole affair. Significantly upping the ante, in a clear gesture of defiance to both the US and the UN, Iran claimed at the beginning of this week to have made a dramatic leap forward in its nuclear programme by being able to now enrich uranium "on an industrial scale". Hence Ahmadinejad, with his flair for political theatrics, blew the trumpet for Iran's nuclear programme at the major uranium enrichment facility of Natanz. Before an audience that included his cabinet, senior mullahs and dozens of foreign ambassadors, Ahmadinejad warned UN security council members that Iran would "reconsider its treatment towards them" if they continued to oppose its nuclear ambitions. Carrying on with this theme - and accompanied by chants of "Death to Britain", "Death to America", "Death to Israel", etc - he belligerently announced how the world has "seen again and again that our nation is powerful enough" to defy its enemies, before advising the US and the UN "to observe the legal rights of different nations" to forge their own (nuclear) future.

Self-evidently, there are differences between UK and US imperialism on Iran. The British government - and ruling class as a whole - is not at the forefront of the imperialist offensive in the Middle East. Rather it is US imperialism which does the running, with British imperialism trailing behind when Bush and the hawks/neo-cons bullishly press ahead - all the time pathetically trying to pretend that the British government is exerting a 'moderating' or 'sensible' influence on the White House.

Take the farce of WMDs, dodgy dossiers, 45 minutes to destruction, and all that lying garbage - something the far more upfront, if not honest, messianic hawks in the US did not have much time for. Hardly the actions of an imperial elite confident of the correctness, and essential nobleness, of its future course of action - but rather more the behaviour of chronically insecure bunch of politicians desperately scrambling around for any excuse, not matter how hollow, to cling to US coat-tails as a matter of strategy.

It is in that context that the decision was made to allow the former captives to sell their stories. Human empathy plus national humiliation might swing public opinion around to a position where UK participation in a 'surgical' strike against Iran would be supported. Obviously the manoeuvre backfired. But the need is still there.

And with regard to the captured marines and sailors, we are beginning to find out that the US eagerly offered the UK government a (top secret, of course) menu of military actions - like continually buzzing Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions with warplanes. However, the UK government declined all these offers and actually asked the US to scale down military exercises that were already underway in the Gulf. In other words, much to the disgust of some hawks, both in the UK and the US, the British government was looking for a 'soft' diplomatic way out of the crisis, or, as they would say, acting 'like the French appeasers'.

On the other hand though, for one, Will Hutton of The Observer hoped that the diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the recent Iranian crisis was an augury of things to come, ushering in an era where "soft power is the new currency of international diplomacy" - congratulating Blair for having "refused Bush's offer of ratcheting up the military pressure on Iran". As Hutton writes, "shock-and-awe military tactics in the unilateral imposition of power may appeal to the video game mentality of the US military and political establishment, but they have created a torrid mess". From this, he goes on to conclude: "The tragedy of Iraq is that by invading without a renewed UN mandate the US and Britain put themselves on the wrong side of the law, trashing their soft power and hopelessly disabling them, as they have discovered, in the post-invasion settlement. Last week showed how the game should be played and put down a marker for Middle Eastern politics" (April 8).

However, Hutton's belief that the events of last week see the beginnings of a new "soft power" game are almost certainly misplaced. The whole region is now a tinderbox - just one small spark could start a major conflagration. And, if anything, the hostage crisis has only served to advance the interests of the warmongers - both in Tehran and Washington, who are engaged in a deadly dance of confrontation and provocation. The hawks are out for a fight with Iran - that is for sure. As for the 'ultras' in Tehran, they seem to believe that the US is suffering from imperial overreach - therefore, to put it crudely, they have not got the bottle to take on Iran as well.

Well, maybe the 'ultras' are right or maybe they are wrong. But all it could take is one more incident, or rash miscalculation, and all hell could break lose - both in Iran and Iraq, and in the wider region as a whole. One thing you can bet your bottom dollar on is that if the Revolutionary Guard had abducted 15 American military personnel then the US would have deployed 'hot power' rather than following the UK's preferred response. And we know that the US has plans to decapitate the entire Iranian military machine, not just knock out its nuclear facilities. If such an eventuality were to happen - and don't kid yourself, it's on the White House cards - the Revolutionary Guards would strike back by unleashing their allies and their own forces in Iraq.

Of course, the chaos in Iraq was directly caused by the imperialist invasion  and is daily exacerbated by the brutal occupation. But Iraqi opposition to and hatred of the occupiers has opened the door to Iran's allies, who have at a local level thoroughly infiltrated the Iraqi police and 'security forces'. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is surely one of the most significant shi'ite militia groups - as indicated on April 9 in Najaf by the hundreds of thousands who took part in an al-Sadr-directed demonstration calling for the immediate withdrawal of all imperialist coalition troops.

According to various reports, some months ago al-Sadr visited Iran, where he was warmly received by supreme leader ayatollah Khamenei. He compared al-Sadr to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah - wishing him luck in kicking out American forces in Iraq "like the Hezbollah did to Israel in Lebanon" (www.coxandforkum.com/archives/000312.html). Further reports indicate that al-Sadr has spent the last few months in Iran under the special protection of the Iranian government, guarded day and night by the Qods corps - an Iranian special forces unit that is believed to have killed/executed US soldiers in Karbala and is thought to be supplying various militias in Iraq with large quantity of weapons and general support (http://billroggio.com/archives/2007/02/muqtada_alsadr_left.php).

Needless to say, al-Sadr's political programme is deeply anti-working class and inhuman. He wants to replicate the Iranian regime in Iraq - which requires the violent imposition of political islam, and a particularly brutal interpretation of sharia law, upon the masses. In turn, this would necessitate the physical annihilation of all progressive and working class movement and groups.

In the event of an open conflict between Washington and Tehran, the existing slaughter in Iraq would look like a children's party. Communists would not side with Washington against Tehran, nor would they side with Tehran against Washington. We would certainly prefer the defeat of Washington; but the best way to achieve that would be the overthrow of the theocratic regime in Tehran by the working class in Iran.