Saturday, April 7, 2007
There's been alot of discussion on how to assess the outcome of the British 15 incident. Steve Clemons of Washington Note says Iran is the big loser:
Iran now looks unpredictable, dangerous (though some will correctly argue that Iran has always been dangerous), and irrational. To be trusted by the world with nuclear enrichment capacity of any kind, rationality, trust, and dependable and predictable behavior must be part of the equation.
Iran lost by convincing even its friends that it is a state that may not be in control of all it's own pieces, particularly a vital part of its military force...
Kevin Drum agrees:
Even countries friendly to Iran appear to believe that this whole episode was a pointless and foolhardy provocation; it's shown up the Iranian government as weak, disorganized, and unable to keep control of its own military...
...This was a plainly stupid miscalculation on their part, and one that they obviously lost control of once it began. Far from being scared off by their bluster, my guess is that this incident will make the world more united in its belief that Iran can't be trusted with a nuclear program, not less.
Meanwhile, commenters on the right are using the episode to trot out Churchillian quotes about Munich and clamoring for Tony Blair's head.
I think the truth is somewhere in between. And that becomes clearer when you separate out the two issues that have gotten tangled up here.
- The proxy war going on between the US and Iran:
Whether or not the seizure of the British sailors was centrally planned or authorized, Iran comes out a winner for demonstrating it is willing and able to defend its territorial integrity, even in the most symbollic of ways. The method was amateurish, perhaps, but no more so than the American seizure of Iranian diplomats in Irbil and Baghdad. And it's already paid off, in that Britian has temporarily suspended their patrol operations in the Gulf.
- The uranium enrichment standoff:
Both Clemons and Drum suggest that if this is evidence of divisions in leadership, or worse, lack of control over the IRG, it lends weight to the claim that Iran can't be trusted with nuclear enrichment capabilities. I tend to see the outcome as reassuring, since it shows that however opaque and convoluted the Iranian decision-making process may seem to us, it arrived at the right outcome. If it was a rogue operation, control mechanisms are in place. If it demonstrated division in central leadership, the cooler heads prevailed.
What really matters here, as Clemons points out, is whether the incident drives a permanent wedge between the Iranians and their support base (ie. the Russians, Chinese and Indians) in the uranium enrichment negotiations. If it does, the Iranians will find themselves essentially isolated on the issue and will be forced to either make concessions or escalate the standoff. If not, the incident demonstrates that the British approach of rallying support while engaging in conciliatory negotiations pays off.
In any case, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bush administration comes out as the big loser. Its major contribution to the incident's resolution, by Britain's request, was to stand on the sidelines and not make matters worse. And given that we've got 150-odd thousand soldiers on the ground just next door and two carrier groups in spitting distance offshore, that says alot.