Marc Carlisle: We wait … as Iran negotiates with Britain |

Marc Carlisle: We wait … as Iran negotiates with Britain


Ten days have passed since 15 sailors and marines from the HMS Cornwall boarded an Indian-flag freighter reportedly smuggling Toyotas. But before Her Majesty’s sailors finished their inspection, they found themselves surrounded by gunboats of the Iranian Navy, and although the Cornwall carried more than enough firepower to deal with the Iranians, her captain chose to stand down rather than start shooting, especially when he did not know why the Iranians had seized his men. Only later did he learn that Iran claimed the Cornwall was operating illegally inside Iran’s territorial waters and not, as the captain insists, operating legally inside waters claimed by Iran’s neighbor, Iraq.Now, it’s entirely possible that the helmsman aboard the HMS Cornwall made a mistake and allowed the ship to wander nearly two miles into Iranian waters.

It is also just as possible that the Iranians made a mistake and miscalculated the position of the Cornwall. Either way, happily, no one was injured, and the only thing at risk then and now is British pride. While Iran and Britain are hardly allies, the two countries do rely on each other. Britain, for example, is adamantly against military action by any nation or organization against Iran, hoping instead to let diplomacy win through. Economically, oil binds the two countries together. 2008 will mark the centennial of the creation of Anglo-Persian Oil, the monopoly by which British investors made billions and the Iranians the occasional quid. Even when the Ayatollah nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1979, Iran paid some measure of compensation to Anglo-Persian’s successor, British Petroleum. As Britain discovered oil of its own in the North Sea at about the same time, the two countries came to work together to convince OPEC to set a much higher price or more severely restrict production of oil than that organization, led by Saudi Arabia, has been willing or able to manage.

In fact, the energy markets had been waiting for Britain to announce whether it would join Iran’s new oil cartel, designed to operate outside OPEC in hopes of setting a higher price for Iran and Britain’s oil. Ultimately, it’s most likely the sailors and marines will be returned unharmed, although Iran will surely insist on a public apology, in Tehran, from Prime Minister Blair. Failing that, the Iranians will save face – theirs and John Bull’s – by releasing their “guests” instead to a third party, such as the Russian President Putin. Either way, both sides have reason to close the book on this incident.And it is just an incident: There’s no crisis as yet, and the only country using the word “hostage” is the United States which, despite its egomania, is not a part of this dark comedy. It’s certainly true that Iran is upset with the United States over our insistence that Iran put an end to its nuclear program. But if Iran wanted to “send a message” to Washington, they wouldn’t do it indirectly via Britain. There are thousands of American citizens, teachers, students, nurses, doctors, businessmen and spies operating in Iran, as well as a fleet of American warships led by two aircraft carrier task forces, that offer inviting targets for an attack or a hostage situation. But that’s not likely to happen, since Iran believes they have America on its knees anyway. Besides Iranian cooperation on nuclear weapons proliferation, Washington wants Iran to close its border with Iraq and stop the flow of materiel and people that are contributing to Iraq’s civil war. Economically, a host of American companies led by ExxonMobil want an end to American economic sanctions so they can once again do business in relatively well-to-do Iran.

To Iran’s surprise, President Bush has already agreed to lift sanctions without any firm action by Iran on its nuclear program. So while Iran has little use and great contempt for America, Iran needs a partner, if not a friend, in Great Britain. And Great Britain needs influence with Iran on oil and on terrorism. Britain is beset by ethnic and religious violence exported from Iran, and wants help from Tehran, or at least a neutral position from Iran, to keep the violence and the threats in check. Both countries have good reasons to end this “incident” quickly; certainly no one benefits if they don’t.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at

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