As the drama in Tehran over the detention of 15 British marines drags on, the Iranian regime continues to escalate the confrontation. Today about 200 Iranian revolutionary guards and intelligence agents dressed up as Iranian Ã¢â‚¬Å“studentsÃ¢â‚¬Â threw rocks and firecrackers at the British Embassy and scaled its fences while Iranian security forces held back from intervening just enough to scare some sense into the British personnel at the Embassy.
Just so the message was not lost on the British, the Ã¢â‚¬Å“studentsÃ¢â‚¬Â chanted Ã¢â‚¬Å“British Den of Spies,Ã¢â‚¬Â a clear reference to the hostage-taking episode in 1979 when another band of so-called students took over the US Embassy in Tehran and held US diplomats hostage for 444 days. Since that episode Tehran has learnt how to get its way in the international arena.
Throughout last week the Iranian regime paraded hapless British marines on TV screens and coerced them to call on their government to withdraw from Iraq, and apologize for trespassing on Iranian territorial waters. They also Ã¢â‚¬Å“hospitablyÃ¢â‚¬Â put a headscarf on Leading Seaman Faye TurneyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s head to underline their message and intimidate a weak political leadership in Britain.
The EU offered lukewarm and hypocritical support for its European partner. In an EU meeting in Germany, France, IranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s second-largest EU trading partner, cautioned that further confrontation should be avoided. The Dutch said it was important not to risk a breakdown in dialogue.
The British have themselves to blame for this predicament. Niall Ferguson wrote in the LA Times that Ã¢â‚¬Å“Blair’s timid response to his soldiers’ abduction shows how weak-willed the once-imperial power has become.Ã¢â‚¬Â Yet although the British response has indeed been timid there is no nostalgia for its days of Empire. Instead, the British and indeed the rest of the liberal democracies of the world should draw a clear lesson from their present predicament.
The British have for the past decade been engaged in a two-sided game of being nice with the mullahs and purporting to support human rights and democracy in Iran at the same time. The British involvement in holding hands with the worst state sponsor of terrorism, gross violator of human rights, and backward religious theocracy, was a calculated and exquisitely British way of benefiting from IranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s huge market potential and at the same time demonstrating the magic of European soft power.
The British kept telling an incredulous world that they are coaxing Tehran out of its political isolation in order to change its behavior and make it a responsible state actor on the world scene. The late British foreign minister, Robin Cook, engaged in Ã¢â‚¬Å“constructive dialogueÃ¢â‚¬Â with Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi and gave Iran the opening it had been deprived of for two decades.
The Iranian regime had until then been a pariah on the international scene which it had earned with over 100,000 political executions in Iran, scores of hostage takings in Lebanon, terrorist attacks in Europe, and a radical bent on subverting the political order in other neighboring states.
But Robin Cook and the British foreign office under Prime Minister Tony Blair awarded the rogue Iranian regime under KhatamiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s charade of a presidency, the gift of coming in from the cold where it really belonged. Subsequently, Jack Straw was kind enough to prove to the mullahs how impartial and sensible he and the British government were by listening to bogus Iranian accusations of duplicity on terrorism policy by proscribing the democratic Iranian resistance movement to the mullahs, the PMOI (MEK).
Mr. Straw, or "Ayatollah" Straw as he was called by ordinary Iranians for his coziness with the mullahs, shrewdly tried to ingratiate the British government with the rogue Iranian regime with an eye toward reaping the benefits of huge commercial deals with that regime at the expense of the resistance movement in Iran.
Not long after, in the run-up to the Iraq war, British diplomats in Tehran negotiated TehranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s goodwill in exchange for British and allied bombing of the PMOI camps in Iraq despite the group’s neutrality in the war. .
But as they say Ã¢â‚¬Å“there is no such thing as a free lunch.Ã¢â‚¬Â No doubt the British have followed a policy of appeasement for commercial gain and now they are paying the bill. The Iranian regime, a major facilitator of the Iraq war and its main beneficiary is playing for keeps.
The US Administration has finally realized past mistakes and has vowed to disrupt Iranian agents and networks in Iraq. In the last few months, several Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force generals and commanders were captured red-handed in Iraq. The Iranian regime, reeling from the blow, first struck in Karbala where its agents kidnapped five US servicemen in a highly sophisticated operation that went awry. The plan was to abduct and take the servicemen to Iran to be used as bargaining chips to force US forces to return the Qods operatives.
Having failed in their goal, the Iranian revolutionary guards now zoomed in on the coalitionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s weak link which happened to be the British. For weeks they planned to take British marines and finally ambushed them last week.
The Iranian regime knew the British would not be able to react robustly because they have a vested interest in relations with the mullahs. So they have begun a familiar cycle of their own version of a Ã¢â‚¬Å“carrots and sticksÃ¢â‚¬Â policy of coaxing the British to back down and apologize for their Ã¢â‚¬Å“arrogantÃ¢â‚¬Â behavior. And what happens if the British donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do as the Iranians want? Well, they will tighten the screws bit by bit by staging demonstrations at the British embassy and threatening to take over the Ã¢â‚¬Å“den of spies,Ã¢â‚¬Â perhaps expel British diplomats, launch attacks in Iraq, and make the British say sorry. All the while they are racking in billions of dollars of profits from the spike in oil prices.
Unfortunately, the British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett is already sounding conciliatory. "The message I want to send is I think everyone regrets that this position has arisen. What we want is a way out of it," she told the BBC the other night. Another government minister, Douglas Alexander, said Britain was engaged in "exploring the potential for dialogue with the Iranians."
"In Middle Eastern warfare," retired US Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters wrote in the New York Post, "a classic tactic has been to retreat in the face of strength, but to attack when your enemy withdraws or shows signs of weakness." Surely the regime smells blood and will laugh at so much lack of will.
Prime Minister Tony Blair should not fool himself. It is not he who will tighten screws here but the Iranian regime, unless of course the Prime Minister decides to change the rules of the game and act responsibly to put the Iranian regime out in the cold once again. The British government can do so by de-proscribing the regimeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s main opposition and stop hampering the process of internal regime change in Iran. The proscription of the PMOI was wrong in the first place and part of the same appeasement policy that has earned Britain the disastrous situation it is in now.
The British government should respect the ruling by the European Court of First Instance and annul the PMOIÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s proscription because it will put Tehran on notice that times have changed. The only firm language Tehran understands is how the British treat its main opposition, and this by the way is also the only way to set Britain free from blackmail by the Iranian regime as I have written before.
Jubin Afshar, is Director of Near East Studies at Near East Policy Research in Washington, D.C.