By Andrew Jack
LONDON, 13 APRIL 2007—The brief seizure of 15 of its troops by Iran in March gave the
UK a human stake in the escalating poker game with the Islamic republic,
to add to the Russian financial and the US ideological ones.
In a macabre repeat of an incident in 2004, the detained
British soldiers (this time including a woman) were televised apologising
after "confessing" to passing into Iranian waters.
If the sea
boundary between Iran and Iraq (on which side the British insist they
remained) is disputed, it seems most likely that the soldiers were
intercepted in a premeditated propaganda coup by the Revolutionary Guard
executed during a cross-border smuggling inspection.
crisis placed the UK in a sensitive position as Tony Blair’s premiership
reaches to its end, with his personal legacy much weakened by his support
for the war in Iraq.
The last thing the UK wanted was a shift
to military confrontation with Iran. And viewed from Europe, it seems hard
to imagine that the other key parties in the stand-off with Tehran do
For the US, opening a new front against Iran would
seem an extraordinary escalation for a White House already so
over-stretched politically, materially and morally by the war in Iraq that
its efforts at stabilising Afghanistan have been significantly undermined.
The victory of the Democrats ought to have reinforced the
administration’s appreciation that the US public– whatever its views on
the original invasion of Iraq – is deeply disillusioned with President
Bush’s management of its consequences.
Yet there have been
too many high-placed leaks and bullish noises from outspoken neo-cons in
recent weeks to simply accept at face value the White House’s public
denial that it has any interest in a new military escapade.
Bush-inspired strike against Iran could reflect self-delusion by the
president that he is succeeding in stabilising the Middle East; a belief
that things could yet improve in Iraq were it not for Iranian
interference; or a desperate last fling by neo-cons to pursue an
ideological project to transform the region before they are isolated by
the next White House.
Then there is Russia, which also has no
interest in a war in Iran. President Vladimir Putin longs to re-establish
his Soviet predecessors’ seat of influence at the table of world leaders.
He hopes to exploit his role as an intermediary in a "multi-polar world",
with Russia’s card no longer Cold War enmity but oil-fuelled leverage and
the need for an "honest broker".
Putin can certainly claim
some credibility in the region – and among the doubters of the Iraqi
invasion in Europe and beyond - by virtue of his outspoken questioning of
the wisdom of the conflict from early on.
But he is also
partly trapped by the post-Soviet mercantilist motives of his military
export machine. The desire for trading revenues long provided at least as
strong a motivating impulse as any broader geo-strategic objectives.
Recent flashpoints include the supply last year of MiG
fighter and other military equipment planes to the Iranians, triggering a
US state department banning order on Rosoboronexport, the Russian official
state arms exporter.
A longer-standing tension surrounds
Bushehr, the nuclear plant under construction by a 2,000-strong Russian
workforce in southern Iran, completing a project originally undertaken by
the Germans and other western contractors under the
Russia has long played the free-rider on western
diplomacy over Bushehr, somewhat nervous about completion of a plant that
could escalate the risk of Iranian becoming a military nuclear power, but
happy to benefit from the substantial revenues the project
By dragging its feet on completion of Bushehr,
while playing the defender of Iran against a more aggressive western
stance, it could play the role of intermediary. Russian’s aim to reprocess
nuclear fuel from the plant would also provide insight, monitoring and
control to the international community to limit the risk of diversion for
Geostrategically, Russia ought in any case
to be worried about a military build-up in Iran. Its conciliatory stance
presents no obvious immediate threat. But Iran sits on the oil-rich
Caspian, is a player in transit routes for oil and gas that by-pass
Russia, and has medium-range missiles that put much of southern Russia
Furthermore, Putin is sensitive to the growing
concern about Islamic fundamentalism within Russia, in part driven by
frustration at corruption and moral bankruptcy in the post-Soviet
Last and most in the current stand-off is Iran itself.
Given what has happened in Iraq – and what has not happened in North Korea
– it is strategically understandable that Tehran has almost certainly
sought to build a nuclear military capacity despite its frequent denials.
But it is also deeply troubling, representing a force
for regional instability particularly given the hardline rhetoric of
President Ahmedinejad against Israel, and the signs of Iranian
interference in fuelling conflict in neighbouring Iraq.
The divisions within Iran’s
complex governance structures should not be under-estimated, and notably
the relatively limited influence in foreign policy and defence matters of
The biggest challenge is that, after
years of realpolitik that left Iran relatively weak and contained, the
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a vacuum on either side flank,
offering Tehran opportunities for regional influence beyond its previous
In short, if the UK has every interest in avoiding a
war with Iran and the EU is still more broadly opposed, the White House
could still be tempted to launch an attack.
Russia’s ability to be an free-riding intermediary is coming to
an end, and the pressure is on the Iranian to be more
cooperative with the international community to avoid tipping the balance.
Andrew Jack is a British journalist
and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform without
University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member
of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.
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