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Who's to blame for Britain-Iran standoff?

April 6, 2007 | Page 16

ERIC RUDER exposes the hypocrisy of the British and U.S. denunciations of Iran

THE BUSH administration has thrust itself into the ongoing showdown between Iran and Britain, pledging for support the British government as tensions--and the threat of a military conflict--increased at the beginning of April.

The face-off began when Iranian naval forces detained 15 British sailors and marines who had illegally entered Iranian waters on March 23. British officials claim the two vessels were still in Iraqi waters, but the sailors have now publicly admitted their position when they were captured.

Meanwhile, a few days after the sailors were captured, the U.S. Navy carried out its largest military exercises in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq--with the explicit goal of intimidating Iran.

"If there is strong presence, then it sends a clear message that you better be careful about trying to intimidate others," said Capt. Bradley Johanson, commander of the USS Stennis. "Iran has adopted a very escalatory posture with the things that they have done."

A few days later, George Bush called Iran's capture of the sailors "inexcusable behavior" and referred to the detainees as "hostages," a term that even the British government has not used.

Other U.S. officials went further. John Bolton, who was recently dismissed as the U.S. ambassador to the UN, called Britain's reaction to the capture "pathetic"--and said that British Prime Minister Tony Blair should threaten "real pain, real economic sanctions" unless the sailors were released immediately.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the use of naval military force to destroy Iran's capacity to refine petroleum, saying that if Iranians had to "go back to walking and using oxen to pull carts," then the people could perhaps be driven to overthrow the Iranian government.

Despite the backing of the U.S., Britain failed to gain wider support in the UN Security Council, which pulled back from tougher language condemning Iran that Britain had demanded, and refused to legitimate Britain's claim that the sailors had been seized in Iraqi waters while on official UN business.

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FOR MONTHS, U.S. politicians--both Republicans and Democrats--have talked openly about military action against Iran, asserting that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and providing aid to the Iraqi insurgency. The stalemate over the British sailors has further increased tensions, but it's hard to predict whether U.S. war planners will decide that the moment is ripe for an attack.

On the one hand, U.S. military power has been humbled by its failures in Iraq, and U.S. political and diplomatic standing in the world is at an historic low, battered by revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, war crimes in Iraq and the abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and other "secret" CIA prisons in the world. This would seem to make a U.S. strike on Iran less likely.

On the other hand, the U.S. might decide that a new confrontation with Iran could provide an opportunity to regain the initiative--and that it's best to act now before the U.S. loses even more military and political credibility.

Coming up with a persuasive justification for war, however, presents the U.S. with a dilemma--every charge that the U.S. might level against Iran applies even more so to itself.

The U.S. says that Iran is refining uranium to use in a nuclear weapon--but the U.S. already possesses nearly 10,000 nuclear warheads. Iran has the right under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to develop nuclear energy technology--while the U.S. announced last month that it intends to "upgrade" its nuclear arsenal with a new generation of low-yield warheads--ideal for carrying out a first strike against Iran.

The U.S. and Britain denounce Iran for capturing the sailors, but the U.S. is still holding five Iranians abducted in Iraq on January 11. Blair says that Iran has exploited the British sailors by releasing videotaped apologies from some of them, but the video also shows the detainees are in good condition--while the U.S. has refused to discuss the whereabouts of its Iranian captives.

"The Iranians who are being held as 'security detainees' are not being charged with anything, and so are being held unlawfully," said Scott Horton, a professor of international law at Columbia University School of Law. "It's an exercise of raw power by the U.S. that's not backed by any legal justification. Legally, it doesn't pass the 'ha ha' test."

Other Iranian officials have also "disappeared" under mysterious circumstances. Ali Reza Asgari, a cabinet member under former President Mohammad Khatami, went missing in Turkey in February. The U.S. claims that he defected, but his family and Iranian authorities have had no word from him, insist he did not defect, and suspect he was kidnapped by the Israelis.

In late January, nuclear scientist Ardeshire Hassanpour, who worked at Iran's Isfahan nuclear facility, died as a result of gas poisoning. Iranian officials provided no further details as to where or when he was exposed, but "very strong intelligence" suggests that he was targeted for assassination by the Israeli secret service agency Mossad, according to the U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor. Israel has repeatedly vowed to take steps to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

U.S. and British officials lash out at Iran for escalating already tense relations, but it's the U.S. that is carrying out war exercises off Iran's coast, and it is Britain that has sent its sailors halfway around the world as part of an illegal occupation. The U.S. has even backed Kurdish guerrilla raids into Iran from Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq.

British officials insist that its sailors never crossed into Iranian waters, and say Iran is using faulty intelligence to justify its capture. But a GPS unit belonging to one of the sailors reportedly shows that their boats did cross into Iranian waters a half dozen times that day.

And when it comes to using faulty intelligence to justify an illegal military operation, the U.S. and British war on Iraq ranks among the most arrogant episodes in history.

The truth is that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has inadvertently strengthened Iran's standing in the Middle East by eliminating Iraq as a counterweight to Iran. The U.S. also encouraged the rise of Shia political parties in Iraq, which have close ties to Iran. With the occupation coming unglued, Iran is fast becoming the region's most powerful country.

It's the U.S., not Iran, that poses the greatest military threat in the Middle East. Until the U.S. is forced to withdraw from Iraq, it's safe to assume that Washington will continue to provoke Iran in the hopes of finding some way to reverse its foreign policy disaster.

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