25 July 2019
The Iran Crisis
Military action is not the answer.
By Neil Tidmarsh
For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Barbary corsairs preyed on British shipping almost with impunity. Pirates from North Africa seized fishing and trading vessels in the Channel and in the Irish Sea and even raided coastal towns in Ireland and south-west England. Tens of thousands of captives were taken and sold as slaves in the markets of Algiers and other lawless ports along the Barbary coast.
The families and communities of the victims petitioned the king to do something about these outrages. The king’s navy sent ships to patrol Europe’s Atlantic approaches, to blockade the pirates’ ports and to capture their towns, but the problem persisted. This was in the heyday of the salty Elizabethan and Jacobean sea-dogs, remember, in the years following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when English sailors were criss-crossing the Atlantic to colonise America in the west and criss-crossing the Mediterranean to trade with Persia and Turkey in the east. Ships, men and money (King Charles I’s hated ‘ship money’ tax) were all available – nevertheless it was almost impossible to stop the North African pirates from seizing English shipping and enslaving English captives.
Much of the discussion this week about the Iranian crisis has revolved around the question “Is the Royal Navy capable of protecting UK-flagged ships in the Gulf, and if not, why not?” But that question is almost an irrelevance. In the first place, the size of the UK-flagged merchant fleet is so vast these days that the biggest navy in the world wouldn’t be big enough to protect every cargo ship flying the red ensign. And in the second, Tehran is clearly trying to provoke a crisis in the Gulf – would it be wise to play its game, to fall into its trap, to escalate that crisis into the armed conflict which it seems to want, for whatever mysterious, perverse and unfathomable reasons? Wouldn’t it be better to frustrate that wish, to resist that provocation?
After all, this isn’t the sixteenth or seventeenth century, or even the nineteenth. Here in the twenty-first century we should have outgrown ‘gunboat’ diplomacy in favour of an effective and civilised diplomacy which unites law-abiding countries against a pariah state and enables them to exert appropriate, corrective and irresistible pressure – judicial and economic – to encourage it to follow internationally-accepted norms.
Questions about the Royal Navy obscure the fact that this crisis is not a UK/Iran one, but one which involves every nation with a cargo fleet, and many others too. By its recent actions, Iran is demonstrating that it is indeed a rogue state which threatens the safety of more law-abiding countries and its citizens; it’s almost as if Tehran is begging the rest of the world to treat it like the pariah which its enemies insist it is. The brazen breaking of the nuclear deal’s uranium-enrichment limits while insisting that Europe does more to honour the deal; the seizure of the Stena Impero and its crew; the arrest of a French academic by Iranian Revolutionary Guards; the transfer of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to detention in a psychiatric ward; the threat to execute the alleged members of a CIA spy ring… Debate continues about whether the UK had the authority to seize the Grace 1, but accusations of illegally shipping oil to Assad’s regime in Syria will be tested in open courts through impartial legal processes in a way that whatever excuses made for the seizure of the Stena Impero almost certainly won’t (and accusations of “Piracy!” rather lose force when the accuser himself retaliates with an act of piracy). Besides, the UK has apparently offered to return the ship itself, only to be rebuffed.
The focus in this crisis should not be on the UK and the Royal Navy and its impossible task but on Iran itself. Why is it behaving in such a reckless and aggressive way? Why is it so apparently determined to alienate itself? What does it hope to gain? Its aims are almost impossible to fathom, but its strategy and tactics do have the air of desperation about them. The country’s internal strains and pressures are huge: widespread anger at corruption and political repression which periodically flares into revolutionary violence; economic melt-down as a result of western sanctions; drought and water shortages; over-reach in foreign military adventures and in the sponsorship of militants throughout the region. The desperate recklessness and aggression which we see from the outside could be the steamy rumblings forced out by pressure from the inside, possibly not even planned but somehow automatic and irresistible, the signs that the whole seething volcano might be about to explode. Roger Boyce in The Times suggests that the regime – the Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards – are involved in an “end of days struggle”.
He argues that it’s time the UK, and indeed the rest of Europe, gave up on its hopes that Iran can be liberalised and brought back into the fold; what is needed is an alliance of western nations, not to militarily threaten or take action against Iran, but to put enough economic and judicial pressure on Tehran to make it behave itself or risk the total collapse of its regime. And that means joining the USA, with its carefully targeted sanctions and its president whose refusal to rise to Tehran’s provocation (he insists he doesn’t want war and urges Tehran to talk) is actually making him look restrained and humane and whose unpredictability (hawkish John Bolton or anti-war Rand Paul?) must be keeping Tehran off-balance.
The power of the Barbary corsairs didn’t last forever. Although their piratical activities were almost impossible to counter militarily, their rogue states were simply unsustainable. Unstable internally and under economic pressure from outside, they eventually collapsed.