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A Very British Hostage Crisis

It was a very British hostage crisis. We just can’t take ourselves seriously anymore as a nation at war, and the return of the gallant fifteen was pure Monty Python.

In their appalling suits, clutching their goody bags containing Iranian craft items, sweets and Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, the gallant fifteen smiled and shook hands with their captors. Happy Easter bunnies.

Apparently the ill fitting tin flutes are the off-duty uniform of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, so in a very real sense the British detainees were being given a dressing down. But since when has the Manchester United coach been seen as an icon for the Iranian mullahs? I think we should be told.

Of course, things were tougher for the captives in Iran when they were off the TV screens – kept in isolation and held at gun point – though there is no evidence they were never actually mistreated. Some wish they had been. Armchair generals were distinctly unhappy about their compliant conduct; what the Daily Mail called the “grovelling acquiescence” of the 15 British naval personnel.

What ever happened to name rank and serial number? Did they need to be quite so, well, co-operative? The odd black eye wouldn’t have gone amiss. “They may deserve our pity,” remarked the Mail columnikst Max Hastings” but they do not command our respect”. John Buchan was no doubt turning in his grave at the sight of Britons being so humbled

But servicemen and women aren’t taught to resist anymore. No one seriously expects soldiers to sacrifice themselves to defend the dignity of the flag. All that Boy’s Own stuff went out with Trevor Howard and the Second World War. Modern marines are trained to do whatever is necessary to ensure survival in captivity, short – presumably – of releasing information which might endanger other British military personnel.

They aren’t really taught to fight either, especially in the navy, which hasn’t been involved in any actual war since the Falklands twenty five years ago. In our gender-balanced, allergy-free, risk-averse Royal Navy, you are meant to spend your time looking at digital read outs from machines that go ‘ping’.

Except when you get a little too close to disputed waters and you get lifted by an Iranian gun boat. I don’t know whether the British patrol strayed into Iranian waters or not – the evidence suggests that they didn’t. But they were getting rather close to a country with which we are engaged in a proxy war over Iranian support for the insurgents in Iraq.

The Americans have been capturing Iranian nationals, so it should hardly have come as a surprise that the Iranians decide to lift a boatful of nearby Brits to even the score. And in propaganda terms, it went beautifully, consolidating President Ahmadinejad’s position domestically against his many critics. Uniting the country against foreign “aggression”. His unexpected release of the detainees was a stunning media coup worthy of Alastair Campbell himself.

Tony Blair’s initial bluster rapidly faded as the issue got lost in the United Nations, which couldn’t decide whether this was an unprovoked act of aggression or an overzealous policing action by the Iranians. Hardly matters now that Ahmadinejad has been allowed to display his magnanimity in the eyes of the world by “gifting” the personnel back to Britain.

The Iranian leader was able to thumb his nose at the most powerful nations in the world for nearly a fortnight – making it look as if the infidels, for all their technological sophistication, were weak, decadent, cowardly even.

Would Iranian revolutionary guards have behaved with such
passivity? Would they have confessed so precipitately? Would they have laughed and joked with their captors and allowed themselves to be paraded like performing chimps on the world’s media? Probably not.

But, look, it’s no bad thing that we behave differently to Islamist fanatics. Senseless martyrdom would have helped no one. The British behaved like representatives of a peacekeeping force should behave, even if they weren’t really there keeping the peace.

British diplomats went into action behind the scenes, keeping open the channels of communication, gently cajoling Tehran, trying to do a deal. Our foreign service is very good at this kind of thing – talking our way out of crisis rather than retaliating first.

Imagine if it had been US marines who had been captured? We would probably be at war with Iran right now. The marines might well have fought back – though armed only with rifles, they wouldn’t have got very far. But they would probably have offered some resistance, passive or otherwise.

President Bush would immediately have threatened Tehran with air strikes. There are two battle groups in the Gulf right now, practicing bombing runs against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the Guardian reported last week that the Americans had offered to “buzz” Revolutionary Guards positions during the crisis. You could almost hear President Bush’s disappointment when the affair ended peacefully.

It may still come to war, anyway. Tony Blair was quick to blame Tehran for the deaths of four British soldiers last week in Basra by an “Iranian-made bomb”. It’s not clear that the militias who killed the British soldiers, two of whom were women, were actually from the militias supported by Iran. But there is little doubt that Iran has been supporting the Shias in Iraq and has been providing training, refuge and explosives for the deadly IEDs.

Sabres will be rattled. But the whole affair has only underlined again how disastrous has been the entire Anglo-American policy in the Middle East. By invading Iraq on a false pretext, the “coalition of the willing” alienated moderate Arab opinion and encouraged every extremist in the region to pile into Iraq to have a crack at the infidel. We gave the Ahmadinejads of the region their best platform from which to attack the West as neo-imperialists.

We have lost the war in Iraq, and it is only a matter of time before the British and then American troops are withdrawn. What Iran has done is position itself very favourably for the aftermath of the retreat. Ahmadinejad has defied the West and sent them packing. Exposed the emptiness of our military rhetoric, for when it comes down to it, they know, and we know they know, that we will not go to war with Iran. President Bush might, but we won’t be joining him.

That was the message conveyed by last week’s episode. We Brits aren’t in the business of trying to remake the world in our image. We are too old and too wise a nation to have imperial ambitions, and we know the limits of force. Far better to laugh it off, as the British sailors did – smile and shake hands.

Armchair generals may have been squirming in their seats at the sight of a British woman paraded in her hijab, chain smoking on television. There has been much muttering about how this confirms that women should not be placed in the front line because they cannot expect to offer much in the way of resistance. But surely the presence of Leading Seaman Faye Turney’s presence helped civilise the crisis and made the revolutionary guards behave. Perhaps there should be more women in the front line.

Surely, the lesson of this hostage crisis is surely that it is best to humour excitable Islamists and do your best to make them behave decently. Contrast the peaceful outcome of this episode with the bloody end to the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1981. In its own way, the resolution of the crisis – like the deal done with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme – was a kind of victory disguised as a humiliation. Better Monty Python than Quentin Tarantino.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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