home l A2 Index l Unit 6 Notes UK World Role

Someone on TSR asked for my essay on the 2007 UK Iran sailor crisis and what it showed about the UK's World role. So here is the version I used as a presentation for my MA.

UK, Iran and 15 sailors – what it demonstrates about the UK’s world role.
By Liam Bellamy

The whole Iran- UK Navy crisis illustrates the UK’s world role and why simply sending in the SAS or nuking Tehran is not a possibility. In addition, the human angle is important as it reveals the different state of minds of the UK government and that of Iran. The UK was only satisfied when it had its people safely back. The Iranian government recognised that and so sought to gain an advantage by it. (This is also why just grabbing 15 Iranians elsewhere wouldn’t produce any meaningful result). Then there was the bombing and killing of four British soldiers in Basra by an Iranian weapon just after the return of the 15 sailors – which, with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, serves to underline why this is a major diplomatic ‘ hotspot’ and why UK – Iranian relations have a much wider context.


1. UK sailors were there due to the UK being a major military player in global politics.

One reason why the UK can demand a place at the top table of world affairs is that it is prepared to put its troops in harm’s way.
The NATO forces in Afghanistan has demonstrated how that alliance and by extension world politics works as far as power earned by acting is concerned. First, there are those members who didn’t send anything for various reasons. They could still comment on operations as NATO members – but their views wouldn’t count for so much. Second, there are those who sent troops but by using caveats (self-imposed restrictions) have largely managed to keep them out of harm’s way. This group is the most controversial as they demand to be heard, but actually contribute relatively little – especially France and Germany. Finally, there are those members who have sent their troops into combat – not just the UK but Holland and Canada as well. These members demand their views should carry more weight as their troops are fighting and dying.
In the same way, the Royal navy was actually acting under a UN mandate to protect Iraq’s borders and to counter smuggling. By contributing (and paying for) troops to UN operations – especially risky ones, the UK justifies its premier position in UN affairs. In the same way, the Chinese are now contributing more troops to UN missions – most notably in Lebanon. Equally, one factor stimulating German and Japanese efforts to rewrite their laws to allow more robust military activities is that without such missions, their claims for Security Council seats are weak.

2. Iran’s local superiority shows how a regional power can hold the upper hand over a great power in the former’s home ground.

A regional power is exactly that. On its own doorstep it can stand up to a distant great power (i.e. the UK or France or China). Against a Superpower (the US) it will be more difficult – but it can arrange its forces in such a fashion to require the Superpower to have to deploy a significant level of force (even just for deterrent effect). Presently, the US has two carrier groups facing Iran . Despite claims that the Royal Navy could destroy the Iranian Navy in about 10 days, even this claim recognised that would then leave the UK unable to project its power any further inland – whereas Iran would respond with (very) overt attacks on British Army units around Basra. (Arguably it did demonstrate just that by killing four UK soldiers just after the release of the 15 sailors). It could also step up its activities in Afghanistan. Iran’s ability to meddle in Iraq in a (semi-) covert fashion against US and UK forces shows its local strength in asymmetrical warfare. (Although some US sources claim Iran can’t really commit itself much further through its proxies. Any future increase would need much more Revolutionary Guard [RG] involvement).
It should be pointed out that Iran possesses the second largest non-nuclear rocket arsenal in the world (after North Korea). These short / medium range missiles would pose a temporary threat to naval forces – again in an asymmetrical fashion.



Why UK forces and not US?
Some people feel that although the RG would have preferred to grab Americans – it was deemed too dangerous. First US forces would probably fired back and crossed back into Iranian waters in hot pursuit. Firepower and pure aggression would have not allowed the RG to get the hostages they wanted. Therefore attacking the ‘Little Satan’ was preferable. Furthermore, with fears of US (or US led) airstrikes against Iran, it would be foolish to let any US action look like (justified) retaliation.





3. Note how the media is used by both sides to try to justify its actions.
Both sides attempted to use the media to gain international sympathy for their position. The British focused on the illegality of Iran’s actions both in capturing the sailors and in the way they were interviewed on Iranian TV. The Iranians hoped that the confessions by the British troops and apparent lack of coercion (unlike a previous incident in 2004) would be enough to prove their case.
It is interesting to note how both sides wanted to claim they acted correctly under International Law and emphasised how they had respected human rights (even if they hadn’t in reality). It is also important to note how one approach may work in one part of the world but not in another. Humiliating UK troops may well play well in the Middle East (former colonial power) but very poorly in the EU and the UN.



Furthermore, the post-release press coverage of some of the 15’s experiences in the UK media (and payment received for their stories) was poorly handled. Not only did it make the individuals look unheroic but it also was seen as how the Labour media team had lost their ability (and reputation) to handle stories and the press well. The defence minister suffered additional damage as a result.

4. This incident may or may not be tied to UN motions against Iran and its nuclear programme – including the use of sanctions.

Most commentators thought the incident could be explained in one of three ways. The first was it was simple mistake. That seems unlikely as the British wouldn’t have met such overwhelming force and could have been released quickly. Second, that they were to be exchanged for a group of senior Revolutionary Guards captured by US forces in Iraq engaged in ‘undiplomatic activities’. This might well be the case, although it will be hard to discern for some time. The third possibility is that it was timed to coincide with the Security Council resolution on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran is finding each step of its nuclear programme harder and harder. (Good news for non-proliferation). Not only is more and more specialised equipment and knowledge needed, but so too are very large amounts of money. (Money that might well be better spent on improving its infrastructure or building oil refineries – a key weak point in Iran’s economy). Also with each step international help is becoming more limited. One key area where Iran has failed is in its dealings with the ‘Great Powers’. The US and the UK were going to be fairly unhelpful anyway. But France and Germany were fairly well disposed at first. (This is also why the EU in fact has key leverage over Iran – see point 8 below). Russia and China were also keen to do business. Iran’s increasingly bellicose image – especially under Ahmadinejad – has moved these states into a less co-operative stance. If the sailors were grabbed in order to pressure the UN Security Council, the move was poorly thought out. France backed the UK in both the UN and the EU (as did Germany). Russia in the past 18 months has become increasing difficult in its construction of a nuclear power station in Iran by slowing down the project and demanding prompt payments. China may also be feeling embarrassed about North Korea and so wants to show it takes non-proliferation seriously in Iran’s case. (Neither Russia nor China are willing to allow US air strikes to go in without political cost, however).
Whatever, the reasoning, the UN and EU stance against Iran’s nuclear programme has hardened since the seizure. It is probably the sanctions and demands for payments that are squeezing Iran hardest – along with the threat of more to come. If so, then Iran might well have learnt that this is not the way to push its interests forward. Indeed, Ahmadinejad had already been increasingly criticised (before the crisis) on his attitude to diplomatic relations and his statements on Iran’s nuclear progamme.

It is also worth pointing out that Germany may have recently tried to weaken its position on sanctions (but see point 8, the EU below) it has hinted it wouldn’t oppose air strikes either. France under Sarkozy has become more supportive of a hard line – but France isn’t risking much by doing so – except possibly some of its UN troops in Lebanon (see point 1 above).

5. The confusing signals coming out of Iran may be due to power struggles within the state itself.

One problem for Western governments dealing with non-Western states is that they can be very different. It is not simply just cultural or historical differences (although they do exist) but that there is often a confused and overlapping hierarchy. Iran’s is worse than most.
A simple example is that there are two armed forces – the Regular one and the Revolutionary Guard. The RGs are more than just an army, they also have a secret service, numerous businesses and political organisations. In addition, they control Iran’s strategic weapons (including all its rocket forces). It is they – not the regular forces – who are heavily committed in Iraq. It was their naval forces who did the initial seizure of the British troops. Ahmadinejad’s power base is the RG (interestingly he was one of the RGs who held the US embassy staff hostage in 1979).
Obviously, too much can be made of splits within a hard-line regime (and in IR there are far too many premature prophecies). But in this case, some Iranian officials may well have spent as much time trying to find out themselves what was happening as dealing with the British government. The upshot of this is it makes getting agreements and understandings much longer and trying to work out who is to blame for specific violations of norms much harder. Finally, it makes that state as a whole more unpredictable and that region (and maybe ultimately the International System) more unstable.



A note on Iran’s missile programme. This was developed as a result of Iran’s experiences in the Iran-Iraq War (1980 – 88). Iran suffered from rocket strikes on its cities and chemical strikes on its troops. The Iranians concluded that if they acquired both types of weapon, then Iraq wouldn’t have used their rockets and chemicals through fear of counter-strikes. Certainly this theory held true in WW2. Also Iraq’s WMD programme that UN uncovered in the 1990’s was designed to used against Iran rather than the West. (Ask me another time for more details). With North Korea’s experiences in 1994, Iran concluded that a nuclear weapon would cause even the US to pause, even if the Iranians were incapable of hitting a US city. So Iran’s WMD programmes can be seen as being defensive from one point of view.

6. Note the different approaches and who is using hard power and who is using soft.
It has been claimed that it is sanctions that are doing the most damage and is putting the most pressure on Iran. This demonstrates a number of points. First that the EU is a significant international player and it can pressure its opponents to back down without resorting to firepower. Second, that selective sanctions (in terms of what and also against which parts of a state) may well work – even though blanket sanctions versus Iraq didn’t. one lesson to (yet again) come out of the Iraq invasion is that a foreign army often unites an oppressed population around its current regime. Threatening to invade Iran may well provide the ‘glue’ the Iranian regime so badly needs to hold itself together. A further point is that Iran is possibly following such a confrontational policy in the hopes of distracting domestic complaints.
Regarding domestic unrest, it is the lack of opportunity and low living standards that is the prime motivating factor. Globalisation has meant that societies are expected to deliver more to their populations and satellite TV and the Internet make it harder to keep such comparisons - and the demands they fuel - out. Iran (like many other states) is being forced to divert wealth back into social programmes to try to head off opposition – especially among young people. Due to Iran’s lack of oil refineries, it even has to re-import petrol. This led to the unpopular introduction of rationing in summer 2007 – further weakening Ahmadinejad’s popularity. The demographic bulge doesn’t always favour the hardliners. It is tempting to argue that free and fair elections do provide a safety value for democracies that dictatorships don’t have. Either way, the Iranian regime faces the possibility that time isn’t on its side – thus making for a more desperate foreign policy and making it more vulnerable to sanctions and to soft power. (For good coverage of this see Bremmer’s ‘The J-Curve’ especially his chapter on Iran. Bremmer doesn’t generally support sanctions however). This also demonstrates why UK foreign policy can’t be divorced from EU or UN policy and why quiet diplomacy may well count.

7. Also, as regards to who runs UK foreign policy, Margaret Beckett, the UK foreign minister has been largely overshadowed by Tony Blair – a reflection of the PM’s personal power in foreign policy.

Just who gets to be foreign secretary is often more about the PM’s perception of how much time and effort he wishes to invest in that area. Beckett was a minister who had no obvious qualification for foreign affairs. Unlike Robin Cook – who had very strong convictions about foreign policy or Jack Straw who seemed able to deal with it competently if dully – Beckett gave the impression of not really being comfortable or trusted in the post. It has been suggested that her appointment also reflected the ‘twilight’ aura of Blair’s premiership, especially as the post-crisis media handling looks poor.
Blair as PM was very interventionist and largely played the role of being his own foreign policy spokesman since Cook was moved out of the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office). Indeed, in the run up to the Kosovo Crisis (1999) and the Iraq Invasion (2003) he seemed to speak for the western forces in general rather than either US President. This was important as it raised both his international stature and that of the UK as well. Obviously, fluency in English gives a UK PM a major advantage but that isn’t enough on its own (otherwise most Commonwealth states would do equally well). Blair’s prominence was a combination of language, media exploitation and a solid grip on the Cabinet – meaning his views haven’t been effective challenged behind his back from senior party members. Gordon Brown’s foreign policy views – outside the Euro aren’t clearly perceived. This allowed Blair to follow largely his own personal policy – irrespective of Labour’s preferences. He sent in the troops at least five times and when challenged about Iraq in 2003 was able to overcome party doubts by relying on his apparent successes in the elections and domestic policies. Ironically, this relative freedom on foreign policy and a lack of a Gordon Brown type minister at the FCO also explains why foreign policy failures (and especially Iraq) have been seen as Blair’s personal failings. She was probably glad to leave the FCO, but not pleased to be given no new cabinet post under Brown. (Although some sources said she wanted to keep the FCO post).
As final point, it is worth noting that senior Labour figures with strong views on foreign policy suffered under Blair – Cook and Clare Short being the prime examples, although some junior PPSs etc also resigned on foreign issues (including Lebanon in summer 2006). Even loyalists like Straw (and Beckett) found their standing in Cabinet reduced as a result of being Foreign Secretary, with much lesser posts being given to them afterwards.

8. Look at the different relationships the UK has called upon to help it out, why it has gone there, what it wants and what reaction it receives.

The US:
The ‘Special relationship’. The US is capable of producing the hard power needed to frighten Iran. The two US carrier groups in the Gulf represent more firepower than the entire Royal Navy (except for nuclear submarines). The backing of the US is essential if other methods fail. Given how confrontational the US can be (especially under this administration) the US often prefers to use the British as ‘front men’ for missions that involve a more balanced approach between soft and hard power. One key advantage the UK military is believed to have is that is less likely to open fire first. However, if it does it is still very capable. Other NATO members are seen as being unwilling to resort to hard power. France is seen (in Washington) as too unpredictable – either very soft or extremely hard (ask me sometime about France’s response to the 1983 Beirut bombing) as well having its own agenda.
Also given the relationship between Bush and Blair, the US would back up the UK due to personal relationships. (The relationship is similar to Reagan and Thatcher – especially as the UK PM seemed to lead the public statements). There have been a number of comments about the US’s special relationship really being with Israel - but Israel’s character (similar to France’s) and long standing poor reputation with so much of the world means it cannot deputise for the US the way the UK can. Nor does Israel have the political or commercial weight Britain does (sorry conspiracy theorists!) ... Finally, the US has no direct relations with Iran. It needs third parties to act for it. The UK is important in that it is close enough to the US to act on its behalf without departing too far from US positions. It has sufficient international status to be taken seriously. Finally, and especially with the Bush-Blair axis, it is usually committed to a similar degree either locally or globally. (The next most committed state would be Australia – but lacks the UK’s global presence. This also explains why France doesn’t enjoy the same status – but Sarkozy may well seek to change that).



Note that the Bush-Brown relationship is more formal and colder (but still ‘correct’). Brown seems to pretend there is more distance between the UK and the US for two main reasons. First, it plays well domestically in the UK, especially as Brown is talking change between his premiership and that of Blair. Second, Brown expects to deal with a Democratic Party president from January 2009 and so he is cultivating ties with them instead of spending political capital on Bush. Neither factor seems to have altered Arab populist or Iranian views of the UK.

The EU:
The need for the UK to engage the EU and to look for a firm statement from it actually illustrates how important this relationship is – and why on an everyday level it is easy to miss that importance.
First, the UK leads the EU’s diplomatic drive to getting Iran to abandon a military nuclear programme.
Also many observers see the EU as having the real leverage over Iran in the form of sanctions – both applied to the state and senior government figures individually. The EU (especially France and Germany) is Iran’s main source for all sorts of goods and niche products. In addition, the EU is where Iran has to go to get high technology in terms of both quality and quantity. Hence sanctions may well be the factor that forced Iran to release the sailors.
In addition, it is worth pointing out that the UK can no longer impose unilateral sanctions without the EU agreeing. (Even the UN sanctions against Iraq had to go through the EU. Equally Germany can’t wriggle out of them so easily, either).



The UN
The UK forces were in theory carrying out a UN mission – so Britain could claim that UN should back it. It is worth noting that Britain has gone to the UN as a ‘victim’. A different approach from say US. Some commentators say this is due to Britain having a more legal attitude to international problems than America. Others say it is due to Britain’s military weakness – it can no longer deal with Iran on its own if Iran doesn’t wish to cut a deal. One paradox about Blair’s tenure as PM is that he has been very quick to intervene around the globe and yet has severely run down the UK’s military means of doing so.
The UK’s seat on the Security Council is valuable at times like this – it can call for a fast response. Interestingly, the permanent members have backed the UK with more enthusiasm than the temporary members – notably Indonesia and South Africa (which seems to have a unique approach to UN motions).