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The Business Online: Spineless Britain faces its greatest humiliation since the Suez crisis

AN ancient Persian proverb, much beloved of the ayatollahs in Tehran, urges Iranians to “be lions at home and foxes abroad”. This is exactly the strategy being pursued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and his hardline Revolutionary Guards, with the result that Great Britain is suffering its greatest foreign policy humiliation since the Suez crisis of 1956.

British military personnel have been abducted by a foreign power; yet a British nation shell-shocked by its disastrous Iraqi adventure doesn’t want to know. The Iranians, long convinced that the West is now too decadent, weak and crippled by self-doubt to react to even the most egregious of provocations, are jubilant.

The events of the past few days are so remarkable that they bear repeating. On Friday, the Iranians almost certainly crossed into Iraqi territorial waters to abduct at gunpoint 15 members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, Royal Marines who were operating at the request of the United Nations and the democratically-elected Iraqi government; assuming (as seems likely) that the British were indeed in Iraq waters, the Iranians have committed an act of war against Britain, as defined under international law.

The British government’s lily-livered reaction has been shameful. Why was a resolution not immediately presented before the UN Security Council under Chapter VII demanding the release of the sailors and marines? Why wasn’t the European Union (EU) – Iran’s biggest trading partner – not asked to demonstrate solidarity by suspending commerce with Iran until the hostages were released?

Such firm and prompt actions would have signalled to Tehran that Britain remains a serious nation, standing up for its own; that would have been the kind of behaviour the ayatollahs, who are acutely aware of notions such as pride and shame, would have understood. Ringing round other countries asking them if they would mind interceding on Britain’s behalf, as the Foreign Office instructed its diplomats to do, smacked instead of spinelessness. Weakness invites scorn and attack, especially from the Iranians, whose elite is driven by a belief in its own moral, strategic and tactical superiority compared with the decadent West – and to whom psychological warfare is second nature.

British – not American – forces were probably targeted by the Iranians because American rules of engagement, rightly, place an obligation on their military to defend themselves while Britain’s politically-correct, European-style rules are designed to avoid escalation.

Britain and America know full well that Iran is funding, training and equipping many of their most lethal opponents in Iraq. But apart from detaining a few Iranian agents caught inside Iraq and stepping up border patrols, little is being done. The Ayatollahs are convinced that the Iraq disaster proves America is ultimately too weak to fight a prolonged war of attrition. But they also realise that kidnapping US soldiers could have provoked all-out war, something they do not want.

But taunting a Britain left rudderless and confused by Tony Blair’s self-indulgent long goodbye, they judged, was an almost risk-free exercise. They reasoned that the British government might be prepared to accept a so-called prisoner exchange, whereby Iranians detained inside Iraq for stoking hate and violence are exchanged for British troops on customs duty.

Such a swap, which for the time being at least has been ruled out by Mr Blair, would divide Britain from America, which detained the Iranian agents in the first place. The Iranians could also exploit the situation to have the maritime border with Iraq redrawn in their favour. The move will also make the British more hesitant to board vessels crossing this waterway, thus making it easier for Iran to continue to smuggle guns, explosives and money to its terrorist proxies inside Iraq.

Last but not least, Britain’s humiliation will boost the regime’ s popularity by providing a modicum of revenge for Britain’s involvement in the 1953 coup that toppled Mohammed Mossaddeq, Iran’s prime minister, an event that has scarred the Iranian psyche. As an added bonus, it is also retaliation for the latest set of sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear programme.

Why have the British suddenly become indifferent to or even wilfully ignorant of what has happened in the Gulf? In a word: Iraq. The public feels cheated and betrayed by the conflict, emotions made worse by the horrible feeling that they may be in part responsible for the terror and chaos that Iraqis must endure every day. Only 29% of the UK electorate now believes it was right to end Saddam Hussein’s reign of tyranny; unbelievably, many in Britain fear America more than they do Iran.

Because of the Iraq debacle, less than a third of the electorate would trust a British government if it said that action was necessary against another country because it posed a direct threat to British national security. This explains why, despite the evidence of eyewitnesses and the master of the ship that was boarded, there is still so much scepticism over the government’s claim that the troops were in Iraqi, rather than Iranian, water.

There was massive public sympathy and concern for Terry Waite and the other Beirut hostages in the 1980s and anger over the detention of British soldiers in Sierra Leone by the West Side Boys in 2000. But this time there has been little emotion on display – less even than when British diplomats and their friends and relatives were seized on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea just a few weeks ago.

Most people now assume all statements from the Blair government must be lies, especially when it has to do with the Middle East; ludicrously, many prefer to trust the word of a fanatical regime dedicated to the oppression of its people and the nuclear annihilation of its enemies.

Another factor is the crude moral relativism that so animates the academic left and its disciples in the chattering classes and the media. To their mind, because it is supposedly illegitimate for the UK to be involved in any way in the Middle East, troops in the area deserve all they get. To these people, no distinction should be made between British or American troops and Iranian agents operating in Iraq, regardless of the fact that the latter are equipping terrorists while the former are trying, however unsuccessfully, to help introduce order and democracy.

This row should remind everyone of how dangerous a nuclear Iran would be. It shows that brinksmanship is Tehran’s preferred modus operandi and that, for them, the usual conventions and laws governing inter-state relations are not worth the paper they’re written on. Iran knows that once it acquires nuclear status, British and even US military options will be rendered impotent. Then the terrorists of Hezbollah and Hamas will be let off the leash by their quartermasters in Tehran. Southern Iraq will become a playground for the Revolutionary Guards and Iran will throw its weight around in the most threatening manner possible throughout the Middle East.

The need to bring along all the permanent members of the Security Council – including China and Russia, but also France – means that Iran’s ever more flagrant breaches of Security Council resolutions are met with sanctions barely worthy of the name. The most recent ones finally banned Iranian arms exports.

Far more effective than any UN sanctions has been a US campaign to persuade financial institutions that it is not in their interests to do business with Iran. The British Parliament should consider passing legislation that would ban all British and London listed firms from doing business with Tehran.

For those who need reminding, the story of Iran’s nuclear programme is a depressingly predictable tale of international appeasement and Iranian guile. In June 2003 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was not complying with the non-proliferation treaty. That autumn, Iran promised the EU-3 – Britain, France and Germany – that it would stop all enrichment activities.

In June 2004 we learned what that promise was worth when the IAEA bemoaned insufficient cooperation from Tehran, which promptly resumed – if it ever stopped – production and testing of its centrifuges. Come November 2004, the EU-3 naively welcomed another Iranian reassurance that it would cease its efforts.

Then in September 2005, the IAEA confirmed that the Iranians had started again.

It took until the end of March the following year for the UN Security Council to properly request that Iran stop enriching uranium. Thirteen days later, Iran announced it had enriched. At the end of July last year, after Iran turned down the rewards on offer for halting its programme, the Security Council passed another resolution, this time insisting that Iran stop its nuclear progress by 31 August. In September, that deadline was pushed back to October.

Finally, in December 2006 the Security Council got round to imposing sanctions on Iran’s trade in sensitive nuclear materials – a move that should have happened straight after that first IAEA report back in June 2003. After three-and-a-half wasted years, the world no longer has much time to stop Iran from going nuclear (as little as two years according to some estimates).

Those who believe the Iranian question will simply go away must remember that Israel will surely resort to military action in extremis if the rest of the world doesn’t prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons. There is simply no way that Israel rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust to allow itself to be destroyed by a country ruled by an elite which openly calls for it to be wiped from the face of the earth and prints 6m copies of its latest banknote featuring a nuclear symbol; given that 6m people live in Israel (and 6m Jews were murdered in the Holocaust), the message is as clear as it gets.

The Islamic Republic of Iran announced its arrival on the world stage with the infamous hostage crisis of 1979-1981; the Carter administration’s ineffective response did much to encourage Islamic radicals the world over in their belief that the West was a paper tiger. This current crisis, which comes with Iran on the verge of nuclear status, must not be allowed to cement this impression. The West should heed another old Persian saying: “A stone thrown at the right time is better than gold given at the wrong time.”{75F97EDA-4E9D-4C06-B339-0940955FB84B} and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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