Iran-UK Row: Anatomy of A Resolution

The 11 day long Iran-UK dispute over UK’s violation of Iranian waters is over. There are clear signs that the worst is over. Low key high level settlement efforts are underway. The dispute was triggered by the entry of 15 British sailors in the contested water of the Persian Gulf and their subsequent capture by Tehran. Now however the Iranian National Security Advisor Ali Larijani has called for an end to "the language of force’ since his country’s priority "is to solve the problem through proper diplomatic channels." The British Foreign Office has meanwhile confirmed London’s preference to find an early solution to the problem.

Clearly the silver lining to the UK-Iran crisis is that in its drop-scene the indispensability of dialogue as the primary instrument of dispute settlement is affirmed. The sailors’ crisis again establishes dialogue as the only mode of dispute settlement. More importantly it demonstrates that in times of hegemony assertion of sovereignty requires a determined attitude by the State. Significantly Tehran did not blink on the fundamental. It stuck to its position that their territorial waters have been violated but opted to give up on the fall-out of the underlying problem of disputed borders. Clearly there is a dispute over where the border actually runs. The British say the border runs along one line, the Iranians say the border runs along another line. Some international arbitration is now a must to actually, at long last, delineate exactly where this border runs.

Significantly, the 11 day crisis was triggered by a thought through Iranian position on how to respond to the presence of the British navy in what Tehran maintains are Iranian waters. Seven factors influenced the Iranian position. One, the immediate history of the violation of the waterways by the UK. A similar incident occurred in 2004 when eight British servicemen were seized after allegedly straying over the maritime border. Clearly there is a dispute over where the border actually runs. Two, is the politico-military situation in the Iranian neighborhood. Most alarming is the US occupation of Iraq where UK functions as the junior occupation partner.

Three, given the threat of an imminent US attack on Iran forecloses the possibility of Tehran’s indifference to any violation of its territory by a country that is viewed as a junior partner of the US. After all the foremost question in global politics is if the US will attack Iran over the nuclear dispute.

Four, Tehran was aware that the UK sailors had entered disputed waters and therefore by capturing the sailors Tehran could generate sufficient pressure on UK to acknowledge that there is a underlying problem involving demarcation of the Iran-Iraq boundary. Such an acknowledgement Tehran believes will lead to serious negotiations on the border settlement.

Five, the Iranian government believed that for the Iranians the capture of the soldiers was a win-win move. It must have also calculated that given the extreme strategic instability in the entire region London would not take any extreme step in response to the capture of the UK sailors. Yet for Tehran, the capture of the sailors on ostensible violation of its territorial sovereignty, would provide Tehran a bargaining chip. Iran has been keen to settle matters of its territorial sovereignty especially where it comes to islands and waterways. It seems to have successfully used this incident to initiate a process to have the international community acknowledge its sea borders.

Six, the lesson that the post-Revolutionary Iran has learnt from the history of Western interventions in Iran is to overtly always respond strongly to each and every provocation involving Iranian territorial integrity. Covertly, the pragmatic Iran has also opted to remain engaged with the ‘devil himself.’ In the summer of 2001 senior Iranian officials met with their US counterparts to jointly plan removal of the talibaan from Kabul. Earlier the Iranians did receive the National Security Advisor Robert "Bud" McFarlane and four unnamed ‘American companions’ who had arrived in Tehran with Irish passports and posing as the flight crew of a plane carrying military equipment that Iran had purchased from international arms dealers. McFarlane had brought gifts of a Bible autographed by President Reagan, a cake shaped like a key intended to symbolize an opening to better relations between the U.S. and Iran.

Seven, the Tehran believed that its capture of the UK sailors will be supported. The Iranian government estimated that in an environment in which millions in the region believe that the Bush-Blair government have been the architects of the 21-century imperialist system extending over South West Asia, any bold Iranian response to UK’s violation of Iranian sovereignty, would be welcomed.

Diplomacy has saved the day. Ratcheting up the rhetoric and remaining unmindful of the consequences would have created a battle context in an already warring region. It is a region whose vast areas are already exploding under the weight of the external occupation and the internal political and social contradictions. Resolving these events which are in fact the manifestations of this underlying crisis without addressing the fundamental problems will simply lead to increased destabilization of the region.