Sunday Telegraph: Shiny new suits, goody bags, handshakes from a head of state and smiles (almost) all round. The Sunday Telegraph
By Patrick Mercer
Shiny new suits, goody bags, handshakes from a head of state and smiles (almost) all round.
Horseplay between young Brits completed what might have been the end of a package tour as the 15 sailors and marines from HMS Cornwall were returned by the grace and favour of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the perfect media coup for the Iranians until the almost simultaneous slaughter of four of our soldiers (two of them women) and a local interpreter burst onto our screens. The blood-spattered helmets and effects of our troops made a horrid contrast with the homecoming of our sailors.
During the Iran statement in the House of Commons last week I seemed to be the only person asking about the fate of our soldiers rather than our sailors. While the world’s media has been grabbed by the mercifully bloodless crisis of our sailors, our troops have had to face increasingly lethal attacks from Iranian-provided weapons in southern Iraq that have left many dead.
Thursday’s attack was just the latest improvised explosive device that, doubtless, has come across the border from Iran. Military commanders and diplomats have been protesting for at least three years now about what one serving military officer said to me was an “undeclared war with Iran”. Yet the fiasco of the last two weeks grabs the public’s imagination much more readily.
Three years ago a similar party of marines and sailors were seized in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway by Iranian gunboats. Their treatment was reminiscent of the Korean and Vietnam wars, with blindfolded prisoners being paraded for the world’s media and statements being made by the captives. The prisoners were treated inhumanely, there was an outcry, and Iran quickly learnt to manipulate the press at our expense. So, if Iran could learn why couldn’t we?
Last weekend there was a deeply disturbing letter in one of the national papers. It came from the wife of a recently retired Royal Navy rating who had served in many boarding operations off Iraq in just the circumstances in which HMS Cornwall’s people were seized. The letter concluded, “the Armed Forces spend lots of time and money training our service personnel how to do their job correctly in non-threatening circumstances but then, at a time when we are involved in a war, they receive no training to equip them for this sort of scenario”. Can this be correct, and if so what will the Royal Navy inquiry conclude about continuing operations in these disputed waters?
For general war, Army, Navy and RAF personnel are all told that if captured they must reveal nothing but name, rank, serial number and date of birth. As an infantry soldier, this was dinned into me at least twice a year, and I know it was the same in the other services whose people were more liable to capture. But this isn’t general war and how are our personnel expected to behave when they are “arrested” rather than “captured” by a nation with whom we are not at war?
Clearly, the captured boarding party was put under psychological pressure and there were some who were intensely unhappy with being seen to cooperate with their captors. Faye Turney and one of the marines referred to HMS Cornwall as “Foxtrot 99” – something that no sailor would do – sending a clear message that their “confessions” were scripted by the Iranians. Similarly, two of the party were clearly truculent and very uneasy in the final propaganda footage before they left Iran. But the overriding impression is one of intense embarrassment for this country.
The Iranians made it clear more than three weeks ago that they were looking to capture “blond-haired and blue-eyed officers”. We had been through all of this three years ago and still it happened again, provoking Israeli papers to headline: “Iran shows up Britain’s weakness”; Saudi Arabian papers to say “the whole incident has become a triumph for the Iranians”, and for most American papers to condemn us roundly.
While this incident has been dealt with bloodlessly, we must still face the frequent deaths and injuries of our troops in Iraq, directly or indirectly, at Iranian hands. The soft diplomacy of the naval incident will mean that any detente by the Government towards Iran will cause the world to say that Britain owes the Iranians for the release of our captives.
Militarily, there is no practical solution to Iran’s nuclear programme nor its support for international terrorism. Anyone who doubts Iran’s intent must look beyond the smiles of the last few days at the bodies of the young men and women who will be returning, slain, from southern Iraq. This is the reality of a dangerous, unstable and unpredictable government, where power is divided between the clerical and secular parts of their society.
I doubt that Iran will swerve from her determination to build nuclear weapons or her declared intent to destroy Israel. While the maelstrom of Iraq continues with the US committing more troops yet Britain seeking to withdraw hers, so a power vacuum is bound to develop. As early as 2005, Blair’s Government showed its hand in terms of wanting to withdraw our forces from Iraq, and there seems little doubt that President Bush has similarly decided the game is up. Teetering on the edge of this is ambitious, dangerous and mendacious Iran.
I was awestruck on my last visit to the Iran-Iraq border to see just how much remained of their great war with each other in the 1980s. Burnt out tanks, half destroyed gun positions and the blackened trappings of battle lay everywhere, along with the graves of a generation of young men. We must have no doubt about the intentions of a country that was prepared to face such sacrifices and which, if anything, has become more unstable. Weakness in the face of such a threat will only be exploited and we must never put ourselves in the position again where we allow our servicemen and women to be used as pawns.
Patrick Mercer is Conservative MP for Newark and a former Army colonel.