Iran seeks to humiliate the British


THE seizure of a British tanker in Omani waters by Iranian Revolutionary Guards is a direct provocation to the international community. The reason the UK vessel was targeted is clear. An Iranian tanker alleged to be smuggling oil to the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad was boarded off Gibraltar by British marines and is being held while the ship and its cargo of Iranian oil are investigated. In Tehran’s simplistic view of the world, the obvious response was, in its turn, to grab a UK tanker.

This act of piracy was however not simply aimed at London. It ratchets up yet higher the tension in the Gulf after recent Iranian attacks on four tankers. Tehran has opened this fresh front in its regional destabilization campaign as its ill-judged riposte to President Trump’s reimposition of economic sanctions because of the ayatollahs’ hardly covert drive to acquire nuclear weaponry.

It was also a calculated move to humiliate the British, whose Royal Navy has suffered from decades of financial cutbacks. The frigate HMS Montrose, which saw what was happening to the tanks Stena Impero and warned the Iranians against boarding the vessel, was apparently too far away to intervene. It must be asked, given the heightened threat, why the British warship was not shadowing the UK-flagged tanker more closely. It seems more than likely that London issued strict rules of engagement which would only have allowed Montrose open fire if the frigate herself came under attack.

This short-sighted attitude very probably had a great deal to do with London’s reluctance, along with other European states, to back Trump’s reimposition of sanctions. The British always like to maintain that they are acting within the rules. But surely the high-jacking of any vessel, let along a UK-flagged vessel, in the territorial waters of a long-standing ally, was a sufficient outrage of international law for the British navy to have intervened and acted with decisive force?

London’s understanding of the Middle East has long been clouded by the delusion that it can influence terrorists by talking to what it likes to characterize as their political arm, the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, for instance in Libya, where gangs allied to the Brotherhood drove the elected government out of the capital Tripoli in 2014, London took the side of the insurgents and backed the UN-constructed government of Fayez Serraj, even though it knew was dominated by the Brotherhood and its terrorist gunmen.

It is going to do no better appeasing the Tehran regime and its praetorian Revolutionary Guard. One possible excuse the British government can have for soft-peddling this piracy is its imminent change of prime ministers. It is also clear that the ayatollahs want to provoke outside powers to try and unify their people in the face of such a threat. Engineering an external conflict has been the recourse of rogue regimes throughout history. The Iranian economy is tanking, not just because of sanctions but through wide-spread corruption and breath-taking incompetence. Ordinary citizens are suffering increasing hardship. But if the ayatollahs can drum up a furious reaction from the international community, they can play the nationalist card and crush any fresh outbreaks of dissent. Moreover, they can shift the blame for the country’s economic and social catastrophes from their own blood-stained doorstep onto the shoulders of the international community.