Brits in the Gulf: Playing with Fire

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Brits in the Gulf: Playing with Fire

Barry M. Lando

The seizure of 15 British naval troops in the Persian Gulf by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy has Washington hawks all aflutter. Anything these days could be a pretext to launch their much sought after attack on Iran. The Ahmadinejad government may also be eager to bolster its own internal political position by keeping tensions ratcheted up with the U.S. and Britain.

But let's look at this incident as many Iranians probably view it.

First of all, though the British steadfastly maintain they were in Iraqi waters at the time, the fact is that sovereignty over the narrow straights nearby where the British were operating has been disputed for centuries. The latest chapter began when Saddam Hussein ripped up a treaty he had signed under duress with the Shah in 1975. According to international legal experts, the issue has still not been settled and the Iranians have frequently acted to maintain their claims. In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were similarly seized by Iran They were presented blindfolded on Iranian television and admitted entering Iranian waters illegally, then released unharmed after three days.

Secondly, it's difficult to blame the Iranians for being suspicious of the British naval presence. Reportedly, for months now George W. Bush has authorized clandestine American military missions into Iran. Those actions range from preparing targeted strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, to carrying out joint operations with opposition groups in Iran—the kind of operations that, if the shoe were on the other foot, George W. Bush would brand as "cowardly acts of terrorism."

Also, as I pointed out in an earlier post, during the end of the Iran —Iraq war, the U.S. carried out many secret raids against Iranian forces. Any wonder that today the Iranians are not a trifle sensitive about British warships, helicopters and marines operating just a few miles off their coast.

The Brits are steadfast allies of the Americans in Iraq. Would it not be natural to suspect that elite British troops—from the SAS, for instance—are engaged with the Americans in those current clandestine missions?

The Royal Navy may be helping Iraq prevent smuggling along its coast, but by cruising around in those disputed waters, the British warships and marines are also asking for trouble.

Barry M. Lando writes, a blog about Iraq, the Middle East and his new book, Web of Deceit.

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