Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Could a strong EU solve the Iranian hostage crisis?

It looks like the Iranian hostage crisis (it’s like déjà vu all over again) may be cooling down, although any hope in this direction obviously has to be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s been over a week now since Iran stopped a British vessel in the Persian Gulf and arrested 15 British sailors, saying they had entered Iranian territorial waters. Britain is denying that they were in Iran’s territory and have showed GPS records and photographs to prove it. But Iran has refused to back down and is demanding an apology from the UK in order to even begin discussing the sailors’ return, along with an agreement to never violate Iran’s territory again. With images of the one female seaman being paraded in a headscarf all over British media, many are naturally outraged and are furious at the government’s inaction.

But the reality is, Britain doesn’t have a whole lot of options here. The UN security council couldn’t get a resolution condemning the Iranian action (Russia refused to go along). Everybody involved in this, including the Iranians, know that the ship was not actually in Iranian territory. The cause for this situation goes much deeper than that, having little to do with Iran and the UK and everything to do with Iran and the US, which still have no direct talks with each other. Iran is still seething over the detention of several Iranian diplomats in Iraq who have not been released. Just today this story broke in the Independent which casts some light on the real reason for this diplomatic stand-off. Apparently the US tried to kidnap some very high-ranking Iranian officials and failed. This move may have been a rush by the Iranians to get something to bargain with before the US makes another attempt. And since the US refuses to speak directly with Iran through diplomacy, kidnapping soldiers from a country allied with the US may be the only way they're choosing to communicate.

So what does this have to do with the EU? Well, take the US out of the equation for a second. Let’s accept that the US is not going to return the detained Iranian diplomats and is not going to ease up on its criticism of Iran’s nuclear program. This means that even though their soldiers were only taken as a diplomatic ploy in Iran’s cold war with the US, the UK will be unable to convince the US to do anything to help secure their release, and there's little the US can do because it refuses to talk to Iran. So, what else does the UK have to bargain with?

Well, they can discontinue all trade with Iran until the soldiers are returned. But unfortunately the UK is just one country, and such an action might not make much impact. But what about the rest of Europe?

Iran’s livelihood depends on trade with Europe. If the entire continent were to embargo the country it would starve. But it would take a strong hand to convince Europe to do so, and the UK government, seen by many on the continent as a poodle for the US, doesn’t exactly have the political capital to do that.

But imagine if there were a strong, united EU that spoke with one voice on foreign policy. If one member state’s forces were abducted, the entire union could respond with an economic blockade until the soldiers were returned.

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