GWU Issues Management

A blog established for the George Washington University School of Political Management's Issues Management course.

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Location: Washington, D.C., United States

A middle aged white guy, who likes to think, talk and, too infrequently, write about politics, religion and gadgets.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Brits and Iran

You are managing issues for Tony Blair. How do you manage the issue of Iran and the sailors that have been held for the last week or so. Is this appeasement? Did he cave to the Iranians? Won't that encourage further acts of this kind?

Compare and contract the British approach to how the Bush Administration might have handled this issue.


Blogger Caitlin said...

The British governments firm but calm approach to the situation was not appeasement, if statements by both governments that no deal was made is true. I think that Tony Blair's willingness to send a team of negotiators to Iran and his statements about the abscence of ill will towards Iranians from the UK have the possibility of opening further diplomatic relations between the West and Iran.
Ahmadinejad's out of the blue "pardon" has some type of motivation behind it. Given the fact that the UN just imposed more sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, an opportunity to create an open dialogue with the West should be very important to the Iranian government.
The British governments handling of the issue shows that they have placed a premium on diplomatic relations since the US invasion on Iraq.
If the seized sailors had been Americans I believe Bush would have taken some type of military action. It is not in this adminstrations nature to allow cooler heads to prevail. Most likely this would have enraged the Iranian people and ruined the possibilty of opening talks with Iran to help stabalize the Middle East.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Danny said...

I can best describe my response to the situation by a joke I once heard:
One day Tony Blair went over to Tehran to discuss nuclear disarmament with Ahmadinejad. During their conversation Ahmadinejad he reached over and pressed one of three red buttons on his desk. All of a sudden a club came down from the ceiling and hit Blair on the head. Ahmadinejad laughed while Blair continued talking. Shortly after, Ahmadinejad reached down and pressed the next button. This time a stick came out of the floor and hit Blair on the rear. Ahmadinejad again laughed while Blair just ignored it and continued. After a few more minutes Ahmadinejad pressed the third button and a spring loaded boxing glove came out and hit Blair in the stomach. Blair had had enough and declared that he was returning to London. A few weeks later Ahmadinejad came to London to resume the talks. During the talks Blair reached down and pressed a button on his desk. Ahmadinejad flinched, but nothing happened. Blair laughed while Ahmadinejad continued. A few minutes later Blair pressed the next button. Ahmadinejad again flinched but nothing happened. A few minutes later Blair reached down and pressed the third button. This time Ahmadinejad became very upset. He stood up and proclaimed that he was going to return to Tehran, to which Blair responded, "What Tehran?"

For those incapable of taking a joke, I'm not proposing that Britain nuke Iran. But Britain should have taken some sort of military action. I would have suggested imposing an immediate naval blockade (and I certainly would not ask permission from the UN) while conducting diplomatic talks. If the blockade was not having the intended effect, I would escalate the use of force and begin bombing military targets within Iran. (Gaddafi wasn't much of a problem for the US after Reagan sent a few sorties over to Libya.) For these attacks to be effective they would have to be sustained and on a large scale. They would have to actually hurt Iran, not just cause a minor irritation.
The way Britain handled the problem has made them look weak and incapable/unwilling to take a strong position against this kind of behaviour. Iran, who violated international law and committed an act of piracy, ended up looking like the good guy. Britain has been embarrassed as has the Royal Navy, which did not provide adequate protection for it's sailors. Iran should now feel emboldened in its efforts to build a nuclear device to engage in more acts of lunacy, as it knows that Britain and the international community are not likely to take a hard-line stance and use force.
At this point, I believe Blair has several steps he must take. First, the sailors and marines must be ordered go on national television and denounce their statements about being in Iranian waters and for thanking and shaking the hand of Ahmadinejad. They should announce that the statements were made under duress. This will serve to restore their dignity and the dignity of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. I would also recommend that Britain impose a naval blockade but this is unlikely to happen due to international pressures. The international community will not be willing to suffer higher oil costs.
I actually believe that Bush would have handled the situation in a similar way. He might have talked a little bit tougher, but I doubt he would have used an act of force. Bush wouldn't have had the support from Congress and I don't think he would want to risk a prolonged armed conflict with Iran.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Brandt said...

I think Blair handled the situation well. He did not start any conflict between the two nations, the prisoners released and seemingly unharmed. The Iranians had to show that strong and could not be pushed around by having their borders compromised. I believe they were likely in Iran waters when they were detained, so a statement of strength would have been needed. They also had to show that they were flexible and open to negotiations or else a conflict would have likely occurred. Britain exerted their diplomatic pressure and stood strong, but allowed Ahmadinejad a way out in which he could still be seen as strong.

I think President Bush would have handled this conflict much differently. I think it is safe to say Bush would have used military might more than the Blair did. Bush at the same time would have not wanted to begin a conflict immediately. With his low approval ratings I think Bush would have likely seen this as an opportunity to bring some support back to his party and would have spoken very harshly against Ahmadinejad and Iran. I don’t think Bush would have given Ahmadinejad a graceful resolution to the conflict. This could have incurred a military conflict, because Ahmadinejad would not be able to walk away gracefully as he was able to do with Blair. Some of that has to do with how Bush is viewed and responses that he would generate among the Iranian people are much more negative than Blair. Ahmadinejad could not have likely acted the same way with Bush that he did with Blair and might not have been able to compromise with Bush.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I refuse to believe that Iran simply released the British naval hostages simply as a "gift" in the spirit of the Easter season. Of course there was some kind of deal made between the British government and the Iranian terrorist state, and part of the deal was that both sides would publicly state that there was no deal in place.
I think the British did cave in to Iran in the interest of getting their soldiers back quickly, and while their safe return is a good thing, the way it was accomplished sets a very dangerous precedent for the future of the war on terror. Tony Blair's unwillingness to take a tougher stance in this instance is reminiscent of the talks that Britain, along with France and Germany, had with Iran regarding the Islamic state's nuclear weapons program in that it demonstrates Europe's inability to be tough on the enemies of the free world. It should be noted that Iran's nuclear weapons program is still underway, and in the near future we will likely see Britain continue to withdraw its support from the U.S. policy of preempting threats to global security. In making what must be seen as a secret agreement with Iran, Britain has traded the future of their foreign policy for the speedy release of a relatively small number of hostages.
If this had been a group of American soldiers who were taken hostage by Iran, I doubt the Bush administration would have taken the approach of measured talks, whose only publicly stated chance of success was that Iranian President Ahmadinejad would be overcome by the holiday season and release the hostages in an alleged showing of good will. I have to believe that the U.S. would have taken a hard line against what we have known for years is a terrorist state. The Bush administration would have ordered a military rescue mission, and in addition there would have been retaliatory strikes against Iran for taking the hostages in the first place. Negotiating with terrorists only gives them more incentive to engage in future acts of terrorism, and that is the principle that applies in this case. Britain should have followed this principle and I am confident that had this happened to the United States our government would have taken the appropriate course of action to deal with our enemies.

9:00 AM  
Blogger rach a said...

Other factors in the environment scream to me that the Brits reconciliated too little, as it is a very fragile environment on the ground.

In crisis negotiations, I learn all the time the importance about making big deals about priorities that are low on the list, as to protect oneself from giving away the big kahuna.

The way the issue has been playing out is that it is of international issue, and then slowly become more focused on Iran and Britain, which seems natural.

And perhaps it was best to attempt a two-way dialog instead of extensive three party dialog. Various Western and Middle-Eastern countries have interests in containing the issue as it was presented and containing the environment. I suggest that this crisis moment will have a lasting effect on the Iranian-British relationship for the better. It is in the interest of all to keep that relation intact....for now.

I suggest that any "overt" war that ensues will be proxied around the internal Iranian corps/theocracy, and the issue will as it usually does, involve crisis management at the highest levels of the Iranian government, as distinguishable from the next tier of power.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Today, as the soldiers returned home, Tony Blair three points: 1) that NO diplomatic deals were made; 2) that the British "dual track" strategy of bilateral dialogue with international pressure worked; and 3) that although Iran should not have used this tactic to get attention and a voice, Iran has "genuine concerns" about the region. I believe we all know what Bush would have done in the same situation, and I do believe Ahmadinejad was aware of this as well when British troops instead of Americans were taken. However, Blair is accountable to the British people, not the Republican party, and the British public is fed up with the Bush-style international relations. I believe Blair will be seen as a hero in the eyes of the British public, perhaps reclaiming some of his lost glory from the Iraq war. During the crisis, in fact, less than 10% of the British public supported military action in the situation at this point. So, no, I do not think Blair's actions will be seen as appeasement or cravy to Ahmadinejad. He walked a fine line between strength (by refusing to trade prisoners and confess to being in Iranian waters) and diplomacy (the "dual track" strategy). International pressure was key in this circumstance as well; with the eyes of the world on America's closest ally, Iran knew it faced great danger if the hostages were not returned.

On a historical note, compare Blair's patience and level-headedness with that of JFK during the Cuban Missle Crisis. It is possible to be both strong and to allow one's foe to save face, which opens up communications and eases tension.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Justin P said...

First off, we’re working with incomplete information in this case because we do not know how the negotiations between Iran and England were conducted. It is possible that Iran was convinced that it was not in its interest to hold the soldiers indefinitely or to cause harm to them. It is equally plausible that the English offered Iran some kind of ransom.

In my opinion, every hostage situation is different, and so there might be something Blair could agree to in exchange for the release of the soldiers. Perhaps it could be something simple, such as a promise from the British Navy to review its maneuvers in the area. However, I would draw the line at anything that could advantage Iran in a future conflict.

I believe that, on the whole, Blair’s cool-headed approach to the situation was preferable to adopting a threatening posture. If the British government had some reason to suspect that the soldiers would be executed then perhaps a rescue mission would be justified. However, there are many risks associated with such a mission. It could fail utterly, which would afford the Iranians a chance to capture yet more hostages. In the worst case, this could escalate to the point where Iran takes action (either overtly or through terrorist groups) against the citizens of the U.K.

Beyond the maintenance of peace and security, there are further reasons to fully explore all diplomatic solutions to a hostage crisis of this kind. A rescue attempt or a refusal to negotiate would likely result in the death of the soldiers who may have useful intelligence to bring back. Soldiers can bring back information related to their environment. What languages did they overhear, what kind of officers were in the area, what kind of equipment did the Iranians have and what questions were they asked? All of this could potentially be useful.

Beyond the potential value of intelligence gathering, the death of British soldiers would be an immense blow to the credibility of the British government. Tony Blair and his administration would surely be blamed for mishandling the situation. By avoiding provocation, Blair can guard against the worst-case scenario without compromising his ability to use force at a later time if diplomacy proved futile.

11:51 AM  
Blogger lindsay a said...

Conspiracy Theory Alert: Bush and Blair created the scenario where British soldiers would get captured after tip-toeing into Iranian waters. Ahmadinejad would hold them captive and not let them go when Blair passively whined, forcing the US and the UK to invade Iran, starting a war there too. Big surprise, Ahmadinejad lets them go out of the kindness of his heart as an Easter and birthday of Muhammad "gift." Good thing since neither country has enough military to invade Iran without reinstating the draft.

It's an interesting theory, and I've heard this entire incident compared to LBJ's little blunder with the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Whether or not I believe that's what was supposed to happen (invasion of Iran) I put it out there for all the rest of you who haven't answered the blog yet to fight about.

To answer this weeks question, I think that Blair acted responsibly, proving (since the soldiers have returned to Britain) that diplomatic talks do work. The answers don't always need to involve military force, I guess unless you are secretly hoping to invade the country. In that case, this whole situation ended badly for Bush and Blair....

12:49 PM  
Blogger John B. Neurohr, Jr. said...

I think Blair and the Brits handled this particular issue quite well; they did not negotiate, but at the same time, they were not hostile towards the Iranians. Whenever a government is dealing with a often-hostile and unpredicatable regime, it is important to keep cool. In contrast to how the Bush administration would most likey have reacted, Blair and the Brits were cautious and prudent. The Bush administration likely would have reacted quickly and (possibly) with force. Had these been American sailers, the administration may have seen this as their chance to move forward with an offensive into Iran.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

I think that Tony Blair handled the subject well...pursuing a diplomatic course of action while not officially offering any sort of quid pro quo (that I am aware of) for the release of the soliders. It did seem as though throughout the situation his tone and demeanor seemed to have changed, I felt in the beginning while always pursuing the diplomatic aspect it switched from a "if this isn't resolved stronger action may need to be taken" to a "see this is where we were, we're right and they're wrong" to a straight diplomacy.

I feel that he adapted to what was needed of him, and when one course of action did not work, he tried another one.

Bush, I believe would not take the diplomatic appraoch, he would respond swiftly (most likely) with some sort of attack. While I can appreciate that he does not want to appear to be negotiating with the Iranian government as it could create a precedent in which other groups, countries, or even the Iranian government would believe if they "got away with it" the first time they could use that tactic to get their way in the future. However, at the end of the day, these are still human lives at stake, and seeing as the public (both British and American) are sick of the war in Iraq, and most likely not wanting to get involved in yet another war, I think that diplomacy was the best option.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Melinda R said...

The British government did well, especially in dealing with a highly unpredictable state like Iran. They used diplomacy over force, which I doubt would have been the case if the same situation were to happen to the United States. I think Tony Blair needed to handle the situation the way he did in order to show the Brits that, despite any previous connection, he is different from Bush. The fact that we don't know all the details behind the negociations only speaks to Blair's need to handle the situation quickly and quietly without causing an international crisis -- unlike what we could predict Bush would do.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Tony Blair was in a tough position with the capture of 15 of his sailors by Iran. Without admitting guilt, he had to try to appease an angry British public while, simultaneously, not enraging Iran. Yet, I have to say that the way that the British government dealt with the issue was surprising. I have always thought of Blair as less invested in hardline policies and more interested in following the will of the people and what is right for his country. Yet, for the most part, they dealt with this issue as if they were in a stand-off. Using inflammatory language, refusing to admit guilt (if there in fact was any,) and referring to the videos of the sailors as distasteful and disrespectful seemed to be a stance that would only serve to anger the other side. In fact, this reminded me of how the U.S. and the Bush Administration would have handled a similar situation. Perhaps there would have been more imminent threats of violence and retaliation if this happened to U.S. soldiers, but Blair certainly was less amicable than I expected him to be. Frankly, I almost expected him to admit the mistake and bargain for the lives of his soldiers. In the end that was not needed and, as we know, all of them returned home safely, but it was an illustration of a harder line policy than I had expected from Blair.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Will said...

In this situation, the British government's goal was to secure the release of the hostages without negotiations (or, at least, without the appearance of negotiations). It appears that Blair accomplished both. However, in the process, Blair and the British lost the PR battle, jeopardizing their military credibility.

While Blair worked behind the scenes to secure the release of the hostages, Ahmadinejad showed the soldiers “confessing” on Al Jazeera, released them as a “gift”, and paraded them through Tehran. I believe that this left many with the impression that the British have a weakened military stance. This impression, left on the global stage, could present future challenges for the British as this may be seen as a precedent.

If this situation had occurred with the Bush Administration, as many other have stated, there would have been a much larger show of military force. While military action may not have been carried out, we would likely have seen large redeployments of troops to the border and sea surrounding Iran. However, it is difficult to compare the British/Iran situation with a hypothetical US/Iran situation, as the series of events would be drastically different if the US and Bush administration was involved.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Brian C. said...

I do not believe that the British caved or appeased the Iranians. Blair was in a very sticky situation and made the best of it. I think the world community knew that nothing was going to happen to these sailors because if something did we would have WWIII on our hands. The Iranians were very clever on this political move and definitely left the situation with the upper hand.

The British handled it well, were calm, collective, and did not act in an immediate reactionary way. I highly doubt if Bush would have reacted the same, especially since he so needs motives to continue his failing foreign policies.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Elan said...

In reading over some of the response of my classmates, I’ve heard inklings of this, but I’m going to go so far as to say that I think that Blair handles this “issue” exceptionally well… at least so far. Certainly, no one know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week. Maybe we’ll suddenly find out that, indeed, some sort of secret deal was struck in which Britain conceded far too much – and then we’ll all reflect on Blair’s management of the issue and say that he should have simply told the truth from the outset.

For now, though, I’m going to say he’s done a great job. Simplify the narrative a bit, and you wind up with this: Iran captured the sailors and marines, Britain asked for them back, and now they’ve been freed. There was no military aggression, no one was hurt, and everything’s back to normal. What more could be asked for from an issues management stand point.

(I suppose, to some extent, this take on the situation is fairly opinionated – as someone who favors diplomacy and dove-ish-ness to any sort of military aggression, I’m very pleased by the outcome and the handling of the issue. And while I by-no-means agree with the alternate position, I understand why someone who has a more traditional, realism-based view of international relations might see the handling of this situation as having weakened Britain. )

I just don’t think anyone sees Britain as being the loser here. If the sailors and marines weren’t returned, or weren’t returned so promptly, or weren’t returned unharmed, then perhaps Britain would have appeared weak for not having taken a more forceful approach – but as it stands now, Blair was never given a reason to be more aggressive. Certainly, his people were captured and held by Iran… but, if Iran genuinely believed they were in Iranian waters, then they were justified in capturing the Britons – in which case Blair would not be justified in reacting with force. And regardless of whether Iran did genuinely believe the Britons were in Iranian waters, the chance that they could have believed it is enough reason to not react forcefully until Iran actually did something harmful to the Britons.

That said, I think Iran is the loser here, simply for having captured the Britons. When it comes to credibility on the international stage, Britain certainly maintains higher regard than Iran – so when Iran says the sailors and marines were in Iranian waters, and Britain says they were in international waters, I’m sure most of the international community is inclined to believe they were still in international waters… in which case Iran was at fault in the incident. Furthermore, even if the sailors and marines were in Iranian waters, Britain is not currently engaged in any explicit conflict with Iran, so Iran still comes out looking like the bad guy for capturing the Britons rather than simply warning them to leave.

Finally, as for the question of how the British approach to this situation would differ from Bush’s hypothetical response: I don’t think we even need to speculate on the issue. On Sunday, April 1st, days after Iran captured the Britons, Bush was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that Iran’s seizure of the Britons was “inexcusable behavior” and demanding that they be released – stopping just short of commenting on any military action but using much more pointed and aggressive language than even Blair. With regard to Lindsay’s conspiracy theory comment above, it was immediately upon reading this that I assumed that this situation was going to be Bush’s reason for entering into a military engagement with Iran, the next target in his so-called Axis of Evil.

3:15 PM  
Blogger phillip cory said...

First of all I am glad that things were resolved without a loss of life. In that way, whatever diplomacy that was used was successful. I do not think the public perception of how Britain handled the issue was well received. So in a PR way, I think they failed. In the management of the issue itself, I think they were successful.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Bethany said...

I think that it was handled very well. Emphasizing diplomacy is always a more effective approach than bombs or playing the "I'll take my toys and go home" game. Case in point: our Iran hostage crisis lasted for 444 days because we tried to ignore them instead of sitting down at the table. Iran, despite ideological differences, doesn't want to be an "axis of evil" country that exists outside global relations. They want a seat at the table and they want respect. If we don't give it to them, they will (and did) demand it by "bullying." Anyone notice a theme here? Diplomacy is really not much different than kindergarten playground politics. Britain handled the situation well because they acted like the more mature party, and used words and negotiation to resolve their conflict rather than violence.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

The Bush Administration would have worked more overtly with other regional powers (ex. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, etc.). Their goal could potentially have been to create a sense that this crisis may widen into an all-out overthrow of the Iranian Republic. Afraid of this, the international community and national players would have put tremendous pressure on Iran to give them up. If they did not, there would be consequences ranging from sanctions to resolutions, to linkage inhibiting Turkey's entry to the other words...anything would be on the table, including strikes.

The British government does not allow the PM war-waging power to the extent that precedent has allowed the Chief Executive in our Union. This present situation demonstrates the real desire to divest in Middle Eastern trouble spots, and assume a more balance foreign policy that allows for focus on other areas of potential conflict (Korean Peninsula, etc).

4:48 PM  

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