British Soldiers Released by Iran
UK-Iran Crisis Lessons -- Giving Soft Power Some Teeth

ATCA Briefings

London, UK - 4 April 2007, 20:18 GMT - Both London and Washington DC have cautiously welcomed Wednesday's announcement that Iran is releasing the 15 British soldiers and sailors it has held for nearly two weeks. We are grateful to The Lord Howell of Guildford from The Palace of Westminster for his submission to ATCA, "UK-Iran Crisis Lessons -- Giving Soft Power Some Teeth."

The Right Honourable Lord (David) Howell of Guildford, President of the British Institute of Energy Economics, is a former Secretary of State for Energy and for Transport in the UK Government and an economist and journalist. Lord Howell is Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords and Conservative Spokesman on Foreign Affairs. He also Chairs the Windsor Energy Group. Until 2002 he was Chairman of the UK-Japan 21st Century Group, (the high level bilateral forum between leading UK and Japanese politicians, industrialists and academics), which was first set up by Margaret Thatcher and Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1984. In addition he writes a fortnightly column for The JAPAN TIMES in Tokyo, and has done so since 1985. He also writes regularly for the International Herald Tribune. David Howell was the Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1987-97. He was Chairman of the House of Lords European Sub-Committee on Common Foreign and Security Policy from 1999-2000. In 2001 he was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (Japan). He writes:

Dear DK and Colleagues

Re: UK-Iran Crisis Lessons -- Giving Soft Power Some Teeth

'Speak softly and carry a big stick' - that was the advice of the ebullient American President ,Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, in the early part of the twentieth century and it may still have some relevance today.

The kidnapping by the Iranian revolutionary Guard of fifteen British service personnel in the Shatt-al-Arab waters at the top end of the Arabian Gulf -- and their release today -- raises once again the complex issue of how such situations should best be handled. Whether the captured fifteen are released promptly, which has happened as these words appear, or whether they were going to be held for a prolonged period, the whole incident provides some important lessons for the modern day resolution of international quarrels -- for which Teddy Roosevelt had such a concise answer a century or so ago.

First, his advice about speaking softly is probably more relevant than ever today in this world of globalized media coverage and instant information. Megaphone denunciations by either side were never going to get anywhere in this ugly incident, as British diplomats clearly realized at the outset. Only after a few days, and with the greatest reluctance, did they release the facts showing that the British sailors and marines were captured in Iraqi, not Iranian, waters - a fact which was, of course promptly disputed by the Iranians with counter-facts and assertions, and a hardening of positions all round.

So what about the big stick? In Roosevelt days, and in the days of British imperial dominance, that would of course have meant a gunboat, followed by the might of the British Navy and no doubt a battalion or two of soldiers and marines to bring the kidnappers to their senses.

But that was yesterday. Today blunt military force makes no sense precisely because the world is now such a tight knit network, so that onslaught against any part of it produces paroxysms throughout the whole global system. The Iranians no doubt appreciated that from the start, reckoning that they could therefore proceed with impunity, discounting any direct British intervention or even direct intervention by the United Nations -- despite the fact that the captured personnel were actually operating under a UN mandate in their task of policing Gulf waters.

In this calculation they proved sadly correct. All the UN Security Council could summon up, in face of an outright attack on fifteen people carrying out UN duties, was a slap on the Iranian wrist which Teheran could safely ignore. So there was no big stick there.

But in one important respect the Iranians may have proved wrong, and as out of date as many of the commentators round the world, all talking and assessing the rising tension in the language of past such incidents. There may be no big stick in the old fashioned sense, but in the age of total information and data integration there are some new big sticks which require neither gunboats, nor megaphone protests nor UN resolutions, feeble or otherwise.

Just as Iran, by being an integral part of the world trading and oil supply system, has the power to cause global chaos (for instance by mining the Straits of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Gulf, and blocking eighteen to twenty percent of the world's oil supplies, bringing both energy and financial markets to a state of total crisis), so the reverse applies.

For example, through cutting off Iranian access to the global financial system London, helped by New York, and by the European capitals, can in practice nowadays bring the Iranian economy to its knees.

Already, as part of the pressure on Iran to comply with international rules over civil nuclear development, American and British banks have been preventing the mullahs from collecting the revenues for their oil and gas in dollars. It is only one small step to prevent them selling in euros instead, or indeed selling their oil for hard currency at all.

But financial networks are not the only ones that can be closed down. The Iranian leaders may talk about America as the Great Satan, and the UK as the smaller Satan. But it is on American technology that the aircraft in which they fly around depend; it is American, Japanese and a bit of Russian technology on which their communications and business systems depend; it is on spare parts and components from Western powers that their entire (and rather rundown) energy industry infrastructure depends; and it is on the European economies, of which the UK is one of the largest (after Germany) that Iran relies most heavily for its export markets.

In a dozen ways the oxygen which supplies a modernizing state like Iran can be turned off and its cities paralysed. No need to talk about force, or 'taking out' Iranian nuclear facilities or any other kind of 'hard' retaliation. Soft power retaliation can do the trick and produce the big stick effect in a way that Teddy Roosevelt never dreamt of, and in a way that even today neither the Iranian high command, nor many analysts round the world yet seem to appreciate. In effect, Iran can be closed down.

None of this invalidates the need to proceed in handling this incident, or similar ones if they should regrettably occur, with quiet and subtle exchanges (the soft voice) as far as possible, and as far as indignant public opinion allows. But it is a reminder that there are still 'virtual' big sticks in the armoury of international affairs.

If the present incident brings that lesson home to all countries and governments tempted to flout international law and the rules of civilised global behaviour, some positive benefit will have flowed from an ugly and dangerous situation.

David Howell


We look forward to your further thoughts, observations and views. Thank you.

Best wishes

For and on behalf of DK Matai, Chairman, Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance (ATCA)

ATCA: The Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance is a philanthropic expert initiative founded in 2001 to resolve complex global challenges through collective Socratic dialogue and joint executive action to build a wisdom based global economy. Adhering to the doctrine of non-violence, ATCA addresses opportunities and threats arising from climate chaos, radical poverty, organised crime & extremism, advanced technologies -- bio, info, nano, robo & AI, demographic skews, pandemics and financial systems. Present membership of ATCA is by invitation only and has over 5,000 distinguished members from over 100 countries: including several from the House of Lords, House of Commons, EU Parliament, US Congress & Senate, G10's Senior Government officials and over 1,500 CEOs from financial institutions, scientific corporates and voluntary organisations as well as over 750 Professors from academic centres of excellence worldwide.

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