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Brinksmanship in Uncharted Waters

by Veteran Intelligence Professionals For Sanity


FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)

SUBJECT: Brinkmanship Unwise in Uncharted Waters

The frenzy in America’s corporate media over Iran’s detainment of 15 British Marines who may, or may not, have violated Iranian-claimed territorial waters is a flashback to the unrestrained support given the administration’s war-mongering against Iraq shortly before the attack.

The British are refusing to concede the possibility that its Marines may have crossed into ill-charted, Iranian-claimed waters and are ratcheting up the confrontation. At this point, the relative merits of the British and Iranian versions of what actually happened are greatly less important than how hotheads on each side-and particularly the British-decide to exploit the event in the coming days.

There is real danger that this incident, and the way it plays out, may turn out to be outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s last gesture of fealty to President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and “neo-conservative” advisers who, this time, are looking for a casus belli to “justify” air strikes on Iran. Bush and Cheney no doubt find encouragement in the fact that the Democrats last week refused to include in the current House bill on Iraq war funding proposed language forbidding the White House from launching war on Iran without explicit congressional approval.

If the Senate omits similar language today, or if the prohibition disappears in conference, chances increase for a “pre-emptive” US and/or Israeli strike on Iran and a major war that will make the one in Iraq seem like a minor skirmish. The impression, cultivated by the White House and our domesticated media, that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority states might favor a military strike on Iran is a myth. But the implications go far beyond the Middle East. With the Russians and Chinese, the US has long since forfeited the ability, exploited with considerable agility in the 70s and 80s, to play one off against the other. In fact, US policies have helped drive the two giants together. They know well that it’s about oil and strategic positioning and will not stand idly by if Washington strikes Iran.

Perfidious Albion/Tamed “Poodle”

Intelligence analysts place great store in sources’ record for reliability and the historical record. We would be forced to classify Tony Blair as a known prevaricator who, for reasons still not entirely clear, has a five-year record of acting as man’s best friend for Bush. If the president needs a casus belli, Blair will probably fetch it.

Is there, then, any British statesman well versed in both the Middle East and maritime matters, who is worthy of trust? There is. Craig Murray is former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan (until he was cashiered for openly objecting to UK and US support for torture there) and also former head of the maritime section of the British Foreign Office, and has considerable experience negotiating disputes over borders extending into the sea.

In recent days, former ambassador Murray has performed true to character in courageously speaking out, taking public issue with the British government’s position on the incident at hand. He was quick to quote, for example, the judiciously balanced words of Commodore Nick Lambert, the Royal Navy commander of the operation on which the Marines were captured:

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in their territorial waters. The extent and definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated.”

Compare the commodore’s caution with the infallible certainty with which Blair has professed to be “utterly confident” that the Marines were in Iraqi waters, and you get an idea of what may be Blair’s ultimate purpose.

Writing in his widely read blog ( ), Murray points to a “colossal problem” with respect to the map the British government has used to show coordinates of the incident and the Iran/Iraq maritime border-the story uncritically accepted by stenographers of the mainstream press. Murray writes:

“The Iran/Iraq maritime boundary shown on the British government map does not exist. It has been drawn up by the British Government. Only Iraq and Iran can agree on their bilateral boundary, and they have never done this in the Gulf, only inside the Shatt because there it is the land border too. This published boundary is a fake with no legal force…Anyway, the UK was plainly wrong to be ultra-provocative in disputed waters…

“They [the British Marines] would under international law have been allowed to enter Iranian territorial waters if in “hot pursuit” of terrorists, slavers, or pirates….But they were looking for smuggled vehicles attempting to evade car duty. What has the evasion of Iranian or Iraqi taxes got to do with the Royal Navy?”

Ambassador Murray has appealed to reason and cooler heads. To state what should be the obvious, he notes it is not legitimate for the British government to draw a boundary without agreement of the countries involved:

“A little more humility, and an acknowledgement that this is a boundary subject to dispute, might actually get our people home. The question is are we really aiming to get our people home, or to maximize propaganda from the incident?”

Casus Belli?

What is known at this point regarding the circumstances suggests Royal Navy misfeasance rather than deliberate provocation. The way the UK and US media has been stoked, however, suggests that both London and Washington may decide to represent the intransigence of Iranian hotheads as a casus belli for the long prepared air strikes on Iran. And not to be ruled out is the possibility that we are dealing with a provocation ab initio. Intelligence analysts look to precedent, and what seems entirely relevant in this connection is the discussion between Bush and Blair on Jan. 31, 2003 six weeks before the attack on Iraq.

The “White House Memo” (like the famous “Downing Street Memo” leaked earlier to the British press) shows George Bush broaching to Blair various options to provoke war with Iraq. The British minutes-the authenticity of which is not disputed by the British government-of the Jan. 31, 2003 meeting stated the first option as:

“The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.”

Not to mention the (in)famous Tonkin Gulf non-incident, used by President Lyndon Johnson to justify bombing North Vietnam.
Saving Face

The increasingly heavy investment of “face” in the UK Marine capture situation is unquestionably adding to the danger of an inadvertent outbreak of open hostilities. One side or the other is going to be forced to surrender some of its pride if a more deadly confrontation is going to be averted. And there is no indication that the Bush administration is doing anything other than encouraging British recalcitrance.

Unless one’s basic intention is to provoke a hostile action to which the US and UK could “retaliate,” getting involved in a tit-for-tat contest with the Iranians is a foolish and reckless game, for it may not prove possible to avoid escalation and loss of control. And we seem to be well on our way there. If one calls Iran “evil,” arrests its diplomats, accuses it of promoting terrorism and unlawful capture, one can be certain that the Iranians will retaliate and raise the stakes in the process.

That is how the game of tit-for-tat is played in that part of the world. What British and American officials seem not to be taking into account is that the Iranians are the neighborhood toughs. In that neighborhood, they control the conditions under which the game will be played. They can change the rules freely any time they want; the UK cannot, and neither can Washington. Provocative behavior, then, can be very dangerous, unless you mean to pick a fight you may well regret.

Someone should recount to Tony Blair and Ayatollah Khameini the maxim quoted by former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix just last week:

“The noble art of losing face
Will someday save the human race.”


Ray Close, Princeton, NJ
Larry Johnson, Bethesda, MD
David MacMichael, Linden, VA
Ray McGovern, Arlington, VA
Coleen Rowley, Apple Valley, MN

Steering Group
Veteran Intelligence Professionals
for Sanity (VIPS)

VIPS can be reached through Ray McGovern at:



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