A Bogus Hostage Crisis

On March 31 the President of the United States made a statement pertaining to the 15 British sailors and marines unfortunately detailed in Iran: “The Iranians must give back the hostages. They’re innocent. The Iranians took these people out of Iraqi waters. It’s inexcusable behavior.”

But since the American people don’t trust George W. Bush, let’s seek a second opinion. A credible authoritative one.

Let’s ask the top Iraqi military officer in charge of guarding the Shatt al-Iraq waterway where the Brits were actually apprehended. This man is working for the U.S.-backed regime and probably not inclined to make up stuff to embarrass the U.S. president, who gives him his paycheck. So his opinion should be relevant here. Let’s ask Brigadier General Hakim Jassim.

The good general told Associated Press the day after the March 23 incident: “We were informed [about the British troops’ arrests] by Iraqi fishermen, after they had returned from sea that there were British gunboats in an area that is out of Iraqi control. We don’t know why they were there.'”

Gen. Jassim—again, working for the Anglo-American occupiers of his nation—does not sound outraged by the Iranian action. And notice how the Iraqi client-state apparatus, which for some time has been telling Washington, “Don’t drag us into your anti-Iranian projects” is not calling the detained Britons “hostages.” It has indeed (with much of the world) protested the illegal U.S. detention of Iranian diplomats in Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

(That particular instance of “inexcusable behavior” hasn’t gotten much press in this country. Nor has the subdued Iranian response to the provocation.)

Gen. Jassim would agree that the Shatt al-Arab river where the Brits were seized has no clearly marked boundary and has been the focus of past quarrels between Iraq and Iran. (Commodore Peter Lockwood of the Royal Australian Navy, commanding the Coalition task force in the waterway last October, said as much: “No maritime border has been agreed upon by the countries.”) Craig Murray, once head of the British Foreign Office’s maritime section, writes that Prime Minister Blair “is being fatuous” in stating that he is “utterly certain” the British ship was seized within Iraqi territorial limits. Murray, best known as the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan (who exposed British complicity in torture in that country) writes as follows:

“There is no agreed boundary in the Northern Gulf, either between Iran and Iraq or between Iraq and Kuwait. The Iran-Iraq border has been agreed inside the Shatt al-Arab waterway, because there it is also the land border. But that agreement does not extend beyond the low tide line of the coast.
“Even that very limited agreement is arguably no longer in force. Since it was reached in 1975, a war has been fought over it, and ten-year reviews— necessary because waters and sandbanks in this region move about dramatically—have never been carried out.”

Gen. Jassim might privately agree that this border issue in any case is the business of Iraqis and Iranians—rather than British and American imperialists popping up in the region at no one’s invitation, on false pretexts, slaughtering people and expecting as they do so that the conquered locals will say “Thanks, boss!”

Bush is trying to depict the March 23 incident as a “hostage crisis,” stoking memories of the 1979-81 Iran Embassy episode. (Younger readers may need some reminding. After the overthrow of the U.S.-backed and universally despised Shah of Iran, in the most genuine mass-based revolutionary upheaval in the history of the modern Islamic world, the Carter administration allowed the Shah refuge in the U.S. and refused to extradite him to Iran to stand trial. This prompted Iranian students to seize the U.S. embassy and detain its personnel. Those seized were released as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as Carter’s successor in January 1981. The incident unleashed much bigotry, hatred and war fever in this country, to the delight of those wishing to shock the U.S. public out of the “Vietnam Syndrome.”)

Just as the seizure of the Americans in 1979 needs to be understood in perspective, the detention of these Britons has to be understood in the context of the crime of the Iraq War itself. Whatever the actual coordinates of the vessel boarded and seized by the Iranians, why are the British policing the Shatt al-Arab waterway at all?

They’re there fighting an imperialist war. That war is going badly. The neocons still in charge in Washington (and building bridges to the resurgent Democrats led by opportunists competing to convey deference to AIPAC and embrace a hard line against Iran) wish to expand it to include the Islamic Republic. They work overtime organizing that project. That much should be obvious to anybody paying attention.

“How about spinning this as a hostage crisis?” some fine neocon might have said the other day, around the water cooler in the hallway outside the Pentagon’s Iran Directorate offices.

“That could mobilize public opinion. Victims in custody on TV, making ‘forced propaganda statements’ in violation of the Geneva Conventions and stuff like that.”

“Yeah that could help. We have the moral high ground and all that. Good concept.”

“Good to have Brits seized. If it were Americans, there’ll be all these charges that it was contrived, to justify war, yadayada”

“Right, seems nastier if it’s them, not so connected with Bush, because he’sy’know”

“I know. People won’t link this to him, or to us. They’ll think, ‘There they go again, taking British hostages this time.'”

“Nice white people just there doing their job, trying to help us out, not trying to provoke anybody.”

“Mm hm. So our approach will be: Iran’s killing our troops with the IEDs”

“Building nuclear weapons”

“in order to exterminate the Jews”

“Yes, Holocaust. Works very well. And Islamist Iran’s collaborating with Islamist al-Qaeda—”

“..facilitating Taliban escape through Iran, or something like that.”

“Might work. But I’d say, for talking points: IEDs—Iran killing our boys; nukes; holocaust plans; support for terrorism—Hamas and Hizbollah; and this British hostages thing.”

“Hostages. Nice to have their faces there on screen. So obviously in the enemy’s control.”

“Makes you angry. Nice English people in the custody of evil. This is beautiful.”

“Yeah. Brits making statements, under obvious duress.”

“That lady having to wear a headscarf and being told she’d be freed, and then she wasn’t.”

“It’s torture.”

“Torture. Yes. We can use the torture thing I mean, that’s perfect. Tortured young hostage mother, in Iran, under a Muslim head scarf”

“Islamist headscarf, forced on her by the terrorists. Good concept, good plan. Let’s see what the VP thinks!”

“Yup, he’s the man.”

* * *

This conversation is of course imaginary, But I do believe this is how the warmongers reason. The key issue on their minds is: “How can we cause the American people to agree (or at least not disagree to the extent that they might impede our agenda) to an aggressive campaign to topple the Iranian government?” And “How can we get this heroic deed done before our boy is out of power or this administration crippled by political scandal?”

Russian intelligence predicting a U.S. strike against Iran April 6. This is a nation that has not attacked a neighbor in modern times, has sought improved relations with Europe and the U.S. and enjoys good relations with Russia, China and Japan.

Iran did not provoke the present situation. It did not ask to be surrounded by U.S. forces in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, or in the Persian Gulf. It did not ask to be included in Bush’s bizarre “Axis of Evil” concept, a statement of hostility as categorical as diplomatic discourse allows. But Bush wants regime change in Iran. He wants revenge for the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979. One should see the British “hostage” situation, and interpret Bush’s rhetoric about guilt and innocence in that light.

* * *

April 6, by the way, is Good Friday, the day Christians believe Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. Muslims disagree. Jesus (Isa), according to the Qur’an (4:157) was not killed. Rather, the Jews crucified somebody else, with his “likeness,” in his place and then lied about it while God raised Jesus up directly into Heaven. Two different versions of the tale of Jesus’ unusual departure from this world, equally implausible from my point of view but embraced by half of humankind. Beautiful harmless comforting myths perhaps. But among their believers a minority believes with absolute conviction, and these can be dangerous, especially if they wield political and military power and think that the God who sent Jesus wants them to smite his enemies.

Especially if they think that a great war centering around Jerusalem (foretold in the Book of Revelation) must precede the Second Coming of Christ.

Especially if they believe that, as that New Testament book indicates, “kings of the East” (Revelation 16:12) will attack the Euphrates region (modern Iraq) before the apocalyptic battles take place in Armageddon and Jerusalem.

Iran borders Iraq to the east. Military leaders predict that any U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran will produce Iranian action against the U.S. in Iraq’s Shiite south.

There are religious fundamentalists in Iran to be sure, fanatics who can be dangerous. But again: Iran has not attacked another country in its modern history. Meanwhile there are religious nuts at the highest levels of power in Washington, capital of a country which, as the (devout Christian) Rev. Martin Luther King once put it, is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

I will not prophesy that the evil, dangerous persons (including fundamentalist Christians and secular Jewish neocons) responsible for the war on Iraq will purvey a Good Friday assault on Iran. But I won’t be surprised if it happens, with apocalyptic ramifications. Perhaps only in the aftermath will redeeming regime change come here.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu