Tony Blair seems to grasp the disaster awaiting Britain if it takes the Jimmy Carter strategy on Iranian hostaging of its sailors and Marines. He warned Iran that anything less than an immediate release of British servicement would move the confrontation to a “different phase”, as the US quickly filled the Persian Gulf with warships:
Tony Blair warned Iran yesterday that the dispute over the 15 British servicemen seized in Gulf waters last week could move into a “different phase” if diplomacy failed to secure their release.
His words, immediately condemned by Iran as “provocative”, came as the US Navy began its biggest show of force in the Gulf since the invasion of Iraq four years ago, with manoeuvres involving two aircraft carriers, a dozen warships and more than 100 aircraft.
As tensions rose, Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, had a robust telephone conversation with her Iranian counterpart demanding immediate consular access to the captured Britons.
In an interview on GMTV, Mr Blair said: “I hope we manage to get them to realise they have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase.”
Different phase — as in “outside of diplomacy”, a convenient euphemism for military conflict. Later, Blair backed down a bit from the challenge, his spokesperson saying merely that Britain would start producing the evidence which would clearly show that Iran snatched the group from Iraqi waters — but the point got made nonetheless.
So far, though, Blair has not exactly been Margaret Thatcher in his approach. When the Argentinians seized the Falkands in the early days of her government, Thatcher told Argentina that they had two choices: withdrawal or war. She made good her threat, despite widespread skepticism that the British Empire could still fight a colonial war — and she beat the Argentianians in their own back yard.
Blair has shown some steel, at least thus far, but Jimmy Carter made similar motions in the early days of the Teheran crisis. He just never followed through on them. It took him five months to attempt an ill-conceived rescue mission, far past the time when Carter had surrendered American prestige and power to a group of ragged students and a radical-Islamist theocracy. Not surprisingly, the same Islamists have decided to try it again with Britain, hoping that they will find a Carter rather than a Thatcher.
They may find an American Thatcher if the Iranians continue their provocations. George Bush didn’t send warships to the Gulf to allow sailors to get a tan. Quietly, Bush has conducted a new effort against Iranian power in the region, capturing its agents in Iraq and daring Teheran to respond. Iran tried an indirect response by capturing the British sailors. The Americans might try something more direct in the Gulf if the Iranians pull another stunt.