Iran’s British Captives: The Briar Patch

My initial reaction to the news that a group of British sailors and marines had been seized by the Iranians—that it was a case of the actions of an overzealous ship’s captain being exploited for domestic political gain by the Iranian regime—is becoming less and less supportable. Austin Bay’s observation

Britain says it has definitive evidence its personnel were in Iraqi territory. Even if they strayed into Iranian water, the fact the sailors and marines were surrounded and outgunned suggests a planned operation.

is sounding more like the ticket. If the videos I’ve seen of the actual detention of the British sailors by the Iranians are authentic, they would seem to confirm the notion that the operation was planned. Walid Phares has claimed that the operation was planned months in advance.

Why? It seems to me that there are any number of reasons. First, a show of bravado on the part of the Iranian regime and shows of obeisance by the Brits could tend to shore up the political support for the regime both domestically and in the region. And then there’s this:

VIENNA, Austria – Oil prices rebounded above $64 a barrel Thursday, reflecting an upward blip in tensions over Iran’s detention of 15 British navy personnel, after London said it would take the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, is located along the Strait of Hormuz, through which about two-fifths of the world’s oil is transported. Traders worry that oil supplies could be disrupted if unrest escalates there.

After opening lower, light, sweet crude for May delivery rose 6 cents to $64.14 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange by afternoon in Europe. The contract settled at $64.08 a barrel Wednesday, its highest close since September.

May Brent crude on London’s ICE Futures exchange rose 36 cents to $66.14 a barrel.

Oil spiked briefly above $68 a barrel in after-hours trading late Tuesday on a rumor — denied by the U.S. military — that Iran had fired on a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf.

“The hypersensitivity to the geopolitical situation is setting the market up for vastly increased volatility ahead,” said Fimat USA analyst John Kilduff.

Other suggestions have been that the Iranians were looking for something to trade in exchange for their five operatives taken prisoner in Iraq by U. S. forces last month or that the Iranian regime is being deliberately provocative, hoping to force a confrontation.

In my view, if the Brits don’t have solid evidence for the location of their vessel when apprehended, they should mouth the necessary formulas and bring an end to the matter. If, however, they do have solid evidence that the vessel was in Iraqi waters, what’s next?

Responding with force would be an error. It wouldn’t necessarily secure the release of the British sailors, it could produce a “rally ’round” surge in support for the Iranian regime, and it would likely cause a further increase in the price of oil—all of which would benefit the regime.

IMO the correct response would be one that increased the pressure on the Iranian regime by putting a wedge between the Iranian people and the regime. I’m open to suggestions. Go to the Security Council and ask for a ban on sales of gasoline to Iran until the sailors are released?

Cross-posted to The Glittering Eye.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. And there in lies the rub. What more can the world do if it doesn’t unite against Iran?

    We had a similar problem with the Iranian hostages the first time when we put the release of the current hostages ahead of reducing the chances of a future hostage taking. I don’t see any clear path, but if you are looking to the UN to solve a problem, you clearly have the sticky end of the stick.

  2. legion says:

    Britain says it has definitive evidence its personnel were in Iraqi territory. Even if they strayed into Iranian water, the fact the sailors and marines were surrounded and outgunned suggests a planned operation.

    I’m leaning more towards that myself. But it raises an interesting question – were the Brits the actual target, or were they just the “lucky winners”? Were the Iranians hoping to grab USN sailors instead? And either way, what is the point of the “planned operation”? Surely nobody on either side believed grabbing a few dozen uniformed troops would really alter Bush’s war plans, when an increasing majority of actual voters in his own country can’t… 🙂

  3. C.Wagener says:

    I’m sceptical that this has anything to do with oil. First, Iran’s production is in decline due both to lack of domestic spending and the reluctance (or legal restrictions) of foreign companies to invest.

    Second, the importation of refined product makes a rise in oil prices less valuable to Iran then generally thought.

    Third, applying rational analysis to certain regimes just doesn’t seem to work. Saddam could still be in power rather than dead if he’d behaved rationally.

  4. legion says:

    Ugh. I should learn to finish typing before I hit ‘post’… I meant to also say that I’m not sure I buy the whole “trading token” for captured Iranian agents idea… This is way too confrontational, and puts the entire subject on a world media stage. For one thing, if the US agreed to release the agents, it would be a worldwide, public humiliation. Given the importance of ‘face’ in the Arab/Muslim world, that’d be a huge victory for Iran, but they can’t possibly believe Bush, stubborn SOB that he is, would buckle to that kind of pressure? For another thing, it would also put the existence of those Iranian agents in undeniable world view also, which wouldn’t really hellp with anything else Iran would like to accomplish in the ME, I think…

  5. legion says:

    Indeed, CW. In fact, one of the first things the UK did was suspend business contacts with Iran, including (I assume, if they hadn’t already) not buying Iranian oil. That might increase oil prices slightly in the UK, but would increase the supply available (and therefore decrease the price) on the world market…

  6. Michael says:

    As much as you and other conservatives like to think working through the UN is pointless, it is still an important diplomatic avenue for US foreign policy. James isn’t suggesting that we use the UN to fix our problems with Iran, he’s suggesting (I think) that a UN resolution would give political cover to other UN member nations to do what the US wants (sanction Iran), while being able to claim that they’re only doing it because of the UN, not the US.

    Right now there is so much opposition in other countries to anything and everything the US wants, politicians in those countries must also outwardly oppose US objectives, even if they personally agree with those objectives.

    I would suggest that the US propose unreasonably harsh sanctions against Iran, maybe even military action, then let the UK counter-propose something like you suggested. That way the UNSC members can simultaneously support the UK (the victim) and oppose the US (everyone else’s evil empire). Then it might actually have a chance at passing.

    I’m not sure I like the idea of banning gasoline though, that will make the population mad, but at us, not the regime. Maybe banning entertainment related items, or convenience items, or extra-cultural items. Things that will find their way easily and cheaply onto the black market, might create a culture of subverting authority to obtain things the regime might not like them having in the first place. That puts the regime in the position of either encouraging the proliferation of these items and the associated dependence on the west, or supporting the UN and enforce the ban against their own people. Either way will weaken their influence over the population. This of course hinges on the banned items being western-associated while still having demand enough to form a black market. Anybody have ideas about what items could do that (I’m not familiar with Iranian society).

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    This post is mine rather than James’s, Michael.

    Actually, I think we should keep our nose out of this unless asked. The British are perfectly able to keep up their end without our help in the matter.

  8. Michael says:

    Oops, sorry, that was just laziness on my part, I usually check.

    I’m not sure how much we can keep out nose out of this, since we are in so deep in Iraq already. Iran isn’t doing this to get Britain’s attention or concessions, I think all this posturing is solely about the US.

    Legion may be right that the fact that these are British sailors rather than US ones was just a coincidence, unless Iran really thinks they can use this as a wedge between US/UK relations. More likely they were the most opportune target, and the nationality of the hostages didn’t matter so much (so long as they were westerners).

  9. just me says:

    I agree that we should keep our noses out, unless we are invited to be a party to the fix.

    I don’t think the UN is going to be much help.

    Sanctions will work, only if the world abides by them, and I don’t mucy see the “world” abiding by them, shoot I don’t even see the UN security council doing much more than its typical posturing.

    This situation doesn’t come with any easy solutions.

  10. DL says:

    Russia loves to play the McCain maverick role at times like this and will not go along with anything that gives teeth to the west.

  11. When do we get to the “Pedacaris alive or Raisuli dead” moment?

  12. leveymg says:

    There’s yet another explanation for the incident in the northern Persian Gulf. Five days before it occurred, Uzi Mahnaimi, a former Israeli intelligence officer who now works as a UK-based journalist, predicted exactly this sort of incident would occur. In The Sunday Times of March 19, he reported that a series of provocations had been engineered from within Elliot Abrams’ US State Department office, the Iran Syria Operations Group (ISOG). Mahnaimi states that ISOG is running a psychological warfare operation targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG). This psychological destabilization, including a campaign to convince the IRG that the U.S. had abducted three of its commanders, is intended to split the IRG and provoke a casus belli with Iran.


  13. Daily Kos, where no conspiracy theory is too loony for the light of day. Like Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”