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
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.