Friday, March 30, 2007
The rising international tensions over Tehran’s capture and refusal to release 15 Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines last Friday cannot help but produce a swelling knot in the gut of anyone who has even cursorily followed the news about Iran for the past few years. As the situation continues to unfold in what seems ever more like the worst possible way, not a few of us have wondered if the war that has been predicted since 2003 could soon break out over what pundits and politicians alike are labeling a dangerous provocation.
Trying to decide with any certainty who is telling the truth about where the Brits actually were when they were surrounded by vessels of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Navy is mucked up because the war which placed those sailors and marines in the gulf was based on a plethora of lies, and because Iran’s leadership is itself often a stranger to honesty when it comes to international affairs.
Equally murky is what may be behind the Iranian action. Could it be a tit for tat against America’s staunchest ally for the netting of Iranian officials in U.S. raids like this one just before Christmas, which even irked Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and this one in January? Or a premeditated retaliation for the clandestine American activities in Iran that Seymour Hersh and others have written about over the past two years? Or did Iran really believe the Brits were in Iranian territorial waters, and it's just protecting its sovereign rights?
Whatever the case, Iran, already diplomatically isolated, made a major mistake with its broadcast of Royal Navy sailor Faye Turney, dressed in hijab, and confessing that she and her fellow Brits had made an incursion into Iranian territory. Her first letter of apology for her part in this matter has now been followed up by another:
The letter said: "Isn't it time to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?" The overtly political language supposedly used by the 26-year-old servicewoman led British officials immediately to declare that it was written under duress and dismiss it as crude propaganda.
The letters and the broadcasting of video of the sailors and marines have outraged the British government and, of course, the British tabloids. It’s hard to imagine that the British populace will be take a different stance. Publicly parading military captives before the cameras in the way that has been done is a clear violation of the Third Geneva Convention. The sort of thing that really pisses people off.
Sadly, there was a time when we took the Geneva Conventions seriously before Alberto Gonzales wrote in a January 25, 2002, memo that "the war on terrorism is a new kind of war, a new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders some of its provisions quaint."
The British government did not attempt to write itself out of the Geneva Conventions. However, as America’s chief ally in the war Tony Blair helped George Bush concoct, it certainly tainted itself with abuses of the sort given the seal of approval by Gonzales. So the cognitive dissonance that sounds when we hear Tony Blair trying to take the moral high ground in this matter is deafening. As Ronan Bennett writes in this morning’s Guardian:
Turney may have been "forced to wear the hijab", as the Daily Mail noted with fury, but so far as we know she has not been forced into an orange jumpsuit. Her comrades have not been shackled, blindfolded, forced into excruciating physical contortions for long periods, or denied liquids and food. As far as we know they have not had the Bible spat on, torn up or urinated on in front of their faces. They have not had electrodes attached to their genitals or been set on by attack dogs.
They have not been hung from a forklift truck and photographed for the amusement of their captors. They have not been pictured naked and smeared in their own excrement. They have not been bundled into a CIA-chartered plane and secretly "rendered" to a basement prison in a country where torturers are experienced and free to do their worst.
As far as we know, Turney and her comrades are not being "worked hard", the euphemism coined by one senior British army officer for the abuse of prisoners at Camp Bread Basket. And as far as we know all 15 are alive and well, which is more than can be said for Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist who, in 2003, was unfortunate enough to have been taken into custody by British troops in Basra. There has of course been a court martial and it exonerated the soldiers of Mousa's murder. So we can only assume that his death - by beating - was self-inflicted; yet another instance of "asymmetrical warfare", the description given by US authorities to the deaths of the Guantánamo detainees who hanged themselves last year.
And while the families of the captured marines and sailors must be in agonies of uncertainty, they have the comfort of knowing that the very highest in the land are doing everything they can to end their "unjustified detention". They can count themselves especially lucky, for the very same highest of the land have rather different views on what justifies detention where foreign-born Muslims in Britain are concerned. In the case, for example, of the Belmarsh detainees, suspicion justified arrest; statements extracted under torture from third parties justified accusation; and secret hearings justified imprisonment.
Whether Tehran was justified in taking the sailors and marines captive last week is something that can’t be ascertained fairly under the circumstances. What’s clear is that Iran deserves condemnation for its treatment of the 15 captives, even if that treatment doesn’t measure up to some of what Yanks and Brits have done in the past four years. What’s also clear is that we desperately need some mediator, someone with influence with the Iranians to urge them to put down the kerosene they keep pouring onto this crisis and figure a way to put out the fire before we all get burnt.