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"Britain Examining Mistakes"?!
Two official enquiries into the circumstances of the detainment in March, of 15 British Royal Marines by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf and the subsequent handling of the crisis, by the military and the British Government, found no individual culpability or need for disciplinary proceedings, although concluded that the Royal Navy made key errors in relation to intelligence and decision making “leading up to the crisis”. The decision by the Ministry of Defence to permit the released Marines to sell their stories to the press, was found to be a “collective failure of judgement”.
We are not told of the parameters of the enquiries. On June 19th, the MPs were told of the “findings”, the full report itself is protected by the Official Secrets Act from being scrutinised by the public. However, it is not difficult to surmise even with the scant information provided, the limitations of the remit of the enquiries.
The Royal Navy is found to have been unskilled and unprepared to rise up to the Iranian “threat” and the enquiry recommends appropriate operational adjustments to meet the demands of the situation. In his report to the Commons, the Defence Minister, Des Browne, commented that “the central lessen is that we must improve our ability to identify and assess the risk that this complex environment generates, and to train and posture our forces accordingly”.
However, enquiries which leave erroneous foreign policies outside their remit and are operationally focussed are naturally incapable of addressing the contributing factors that led into a crisis that could have potentially escalated into a war. Or might we say, the intention of the enquiry was not so much addressing what led into the crisis but rather what went wrong with ‘our crisis’!
For any inquiry which placed the international peace and security including the peace and security of the British people, as its prime purpose, would have followed certain criteria and addressed certain contributing factors: firstly, transparency in relation to the aims of the inquiry, its remit and outcome, secondly, evaluation of foreign policy on the basis of which decisions are made; third, transparency and accuracy of data on which evaluation is based to avoid similar crises; fourth, the role of the media in hyping up crises and creating atmospheres, fifth, accountability of power, and last but not the least, a genuine desire for conflict resolution to guide evaluation of circumstances and decision making.
Unfortunately, none of the above criteria are detectable in the released outcome of the enquiries.
In relation to the background of the ‘incident’ -for the sake of argument, the issue of the legality of the invasion and the British presence in the Gulf is left alone - the Iranian and British accounts of the position of the British Marines at the time of the arrest are at variance and, as yet, no credible evidence has been offered by the British government that the Marines were in Iraqi waters. However, it appears that the enquiry either starts with the assumption that Britain was in ‘mandated’ waters, which renders the assessment and the conclusions faulty and unreliable, or that the position of the British Marines at the time of their arrest was considered an irrelevance, which bodes ill for international peace and security and must be exposed and challenged.
It also appears that the enquiry has neglected to investigate the manner in which a conflict which could have been resolved through conventional approach of resorting to bilateral diplomatic channels was allowed to escalate into a crisis of international dimensions. Britain, unlike the US, does have an embassy in Tehran. So, what was the impediment to bilateral diplomacy on this occasion, when previously in 2004 a similar incursion involving British service personnel into Iranian territorial waters was resolved in a matter of days with Jack Straw guaranteeing that such incursion would not occur in future? On the day of the incident, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sought explanation and assurance for “non-recurrence of such incidents in future”. However, the British government chose to make a belligerent call for the immediate release of the Navy personnel “in no uncertain terms”. The offer of the release of Faye Turney by Iran was responded to and sabotaged by a media blitz demonising Iran, and Iran’s formal letter to the British Government simply demanding a written guarantee that there will be no more trespassing of Iranian territory by the British forces, was dismissed. Instead the Blair government hastily proceeded to extend a bilateral issue into a crisis of international dimension by involving the Security Council and the EU. This involvement of the Security Council, as an International organisation, supposedly, entrusted with safeguarding international peace and security, was unprecedented in a case which could have been resolved bilaterally.
The circumstances, however, both internationally and domestically, proved too unfavourable for Britain to pursue further escalation of the crisis.
The refusal by the Security Council to call for the release of the British Marines and the refusal by the EU to heed the UK pressure to impose sanctions on Iran, gave clear indication of the absence of international support, bar US/Israel, for a confrontation with Iran.
Domestically too the British government despite the support of its media arm, failed to produce that atmosphere of righteous indignation necessary for aggressive confrontation. People in Britain do not have an appetite for another war, particularly so when the legality and morality of the current tragic quagmire in Iraq is so prominent in the British consciousness.
There was also the miscalculation of the reaction of the British public to the Iranian TV screening of the British Marines who were seen to be unharmed and well treated, in sharp contrast to the nightmares of Abu Gharib and Guantanamo, which could not go unnoticed.
The enquiry concluded that the permission by the Ministry of Defence to allow the British Marines to sell their stories to the press was “a collective failure of judgement”, and a failure of judgement it was. It was a propaganda flop in that it backfired in its intention to produce outrage directed at Iran. The outrage it elicited came from the families of those who died in waste in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was rightly directed, not at Iran, but at the Ministry of Defence, for its cynical opportunism and ruthlessness in its campaign of misinformation.
In relation to accountability, no-one was held responsible for possible provocation or mishandling of a conflict that led us into a potentially dangerous crisis. Of course, how is it possible to reckon with the perpetrators when mistakes themselves are unrecognised?
The departure of Tony Blair is a welcome achievement and to the great credit of anti war movement and the British people’s enduring and increasing anti war sentiments. However, the expression “rat against the wall” seems such an apt description here which includes the Neo-Cons faded fortune and George Bush’s rapidly approaching end of presidency. It is in this atmosphere of polarisation of forces, of those in favour of necessary dialogue and conflict resolution, and those determined on regime change and war, that the recent war cries against Iran from American presidential candidates, desperate to guarantee AIPAC’s support and funds, must be heard, and the hyped up lies and distortions in the mainstream media, both in the US and in the UK, must be viewed. So although Brown is taking over from Blair, the forces pushing for a war against Iran have not relinquished hope and have intensified their effort in disseminating the same distortions and lies that primed the public’s mind for an invasion of Iraq in 2003, now to prepare for a war against Iran.
Brown is inheriting the same foreign policy and the same structure of deceit, represented by a closed door enquiry into, we have no idea what, and with outcomes safely locked away from our scrutiny and challenge. We are supposed to trust the judgement of an unaccountable minority who trampled on our collective judgment against the war. It is up to the resolve and the ability of all peace loving people and anti war activists in the UK to be vigilant and demanding in the face of the absence of transparency, unaccountability, confusion mongering and black propaganda. The transition from Blair to Brown provides this opportunity in one respect only: the sense of victory to oust a prime minister which lied us into a criminal war should energise our challenge to Brown and force him to sever Britain’s servile relationship to the most reactionary elements in the US, if he were to be elected, and if he were not to be held to account, on par with Blair, for his role in the catastrophe in Iraq.
Mehrnaz Shahabi is an anti-war activist and CASMII UK Board member.