Brits Back: Mystery Remains

Friday morning cable news was saturated with scenes of the British sailors and marines, their embrace-filled return, a uniformed press conference, long and fact filled interviews — “How does it feel being back!?” The interviewers, to a person, larded their rising and falling tones with indicators of “bad Iranians,” “good Brits.” It was really quite a show.

Alongside it, especially in the British tabloids, and here, but on certain chauvinistically pumped US cable shows, and bloggers, snarling innuendo’s were raised about the capitulation of the British troops to the Revolutionary Guard, the too-quick apologies for being in Iranian waters. There was pooh-poohing about the “stress” of being blindfolded and hearing guns being cocked. There were claims that Americans would never have been captured without a fight.

Few of the commentators I have heard brought up the obvious: how did this happen? How were these youngsters left so alone?

Where was the captain of the HMS Cornwall, Jeremy Woods, or the Coalition task force commander Commodore Nick Lambert during the capture? Where was the Cornwall itself? Why didn’t its radar pick up the 6 Revolutionary Guard speed boats approaching from nearby land? Why didn’t the helicopter hovering overhead with the conveniently displayed GPS device see the boats approaching? Why was the whole boarding party searching the vessel with no one scanning the area for possible change of situation? Was no one left in the boats themselves, highly mobile and heavily armed, while the boarders were searching?

It would seem odd in almost any case, but this one, Iraqi waters or not, was highly charged. Three or four enormous aircraft carriers were in the area. A shooting war is going on not too far away. The closest land mass belongs to a country with a recent history of contention with the country to which the HMS Cornwall belongs. And a boarding part of 15 youngsters is sent over without a plan, without backup, without lookouts?

Watch for a Board of Investigation. Or, if not, suspect a plot the deviousness of which we can only begin to guess.

We can be glad that cooler heads prevailed (it seems,) and that no further escalation occurred. But if the narrative is as it has been presented, the British Navy has a lot of questions to answer.

Those in charge of the over-all strategy –e.g. the Americans– ought to be asking themselves a few questions as well.

For a purely military analysis of the board and capture see David Eshel at Defense Update.

Sara Lyall in the NY Times, syndicated widely, has an early summary of the questions raised about the captives’ behavior.

Iran: Brits To Go Home

Iran president says to free British sailors [More at NY Times]

Iran’s official news agency said British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s adviser Nigel Sheinwald had spoken directly to Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, on Tuesday night, breaking high-level diplomatic ice.

Larijani is one of those characterized as a “pragmatist” in the Iranian ruling elite, which has been contesting for power with President Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard. This theme of a fault zone, noted yesterday in a Debka article was carried forward by Michael Slackman in the NY Times.

There was of course a whole lot going on behind the scenes, some of it calculated, some opportunistically siezed.

Daoud Kattub
, a Palestinian journalist, thinks it was a many-for-one swap of Brits for an Iranian diplomat released yesterday in Iraq. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says there was no exchange, no relation. From published statements it is not clear at all who kidnapped Jalal Sharafi, Second Secretary of Iran’s mission in Baghdad, though Iraq’s Intelligence Service, affiliated with the US CIA, is among the suspects. The other five Iranians picked up by US forces in Iraq several weeks ago appear still to be in custody though it wouldn’t be surprising to see them released in a matter of days.

It will be interesting to see what the Brits say when they return home, and/or what the Government has them say. If the push-pull being reported in Iran is true we ought to see more manifestations of it in the aftermath of this mini crisis: which side will be thought to have gained, which lost, in stature and leadership. Not least it will be interesting to see how the rules of engagement in the Persian Gulf, and particularly in the contested waters of the Straits of Hormuz get tightened or slackened, how far or how close Western naval vessels come to the area. More directly than in diplomatic circles the navies can take on alpha dog behavior when uncertainty rules – showing their fearlessness, stating their positions, not yielding to the “other.” There are scary games of “chicken” possible, ships maneuvering to get the nautical right-of-way and forcing the other to back down. With three carrier task forces in the area there is plenty of opportunity for manly display….

Meanwhile we can be glad the media contest between Iran and the UK did not escalate into more.