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Iran Rules the Waves By: Barry Rubin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 30, 2007

Why is Iran being so aggressive? Why is Britain being so weak? And what is the wider meaning of Iran's seizure of 15 British navy personnel from Iraqi waters in this new hostage crisis?

It is no accident that Tehran is doing everything possible to humiliate Britain. The two countries’ political cultures are not only out of sync; they are operating with different timelines altogether.

Remember the war of Jenkins’ ear? In 1731, Spanish sailors boarded a British vessel in Spanish waters, where it was entitled to be, and cut off the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins of the Rebecca, which the sailors were not entitled to do. It was one cause of a war between the two countries. After the murder of a British merchant in Japan went unpunished in 1862, the British navy bombarded the capital of the warlord responsible. Many other similar incidents could be mentioned.

These were the bad old days of imperialism and gunboat diplomacy. The Western powers were far stronger than those of what we called more recently the Third World. Britain and France -- and occasionally Germany, Italy, and the United States -- were ready to remind the Third World of that fact. Sometimes, this leverage was used for ethical or at least reasonable purposes; other times, it was employed for the sake of greed and territorial acquisition. Innocent people were hurt in such retaliations.

But if in, say 1807 or 1907, an Iranian ruler had dared trample unbidden on the decks of one of his or her majesty’s ships, he would have been made to feel very sorry for it.

Or as the poet James Thompson about the time that Jenkins was becoming aurally challenged in his poem, “Rule Brittania”:

Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame:

All their attempts to bend thee down,

Will but arouse thy generous flame;

But work their woe, and thy renown.”

That flame was literal, coming out of the cannon’s mouth.


This era is long gone and to a large extent that is a good thing. But today there is a wide-spread failure to appreciate that power and force are often required, especially against “haughty tyrants,” an apt description of Iran’s rulers.


After all, Britain was so touchy for a good reason. As Thompson said: “The nations not so blest as thee,/ Shall in their turns to tyrants fall.” In other words, if you aren’t tough when you meet

aggressive and extremist enemies, they will chew you up.


The turning point was in 1956. Who better embodied that fight against haughty tyrants than Anthony Eden who, even more than Winston Churchill, had raised the call to battle against the fascists in the 1930s and warned tirelessly against where appeasement was leading? It was Eden who as prime minister in 1956 secretly worked with France and Israel to overthrow the Middle East’s new -- and it turned out archetypal -- tyrant, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.


The Egyptian ruler had nationalized the Suez Canal Company and was beginning the long process of stirring Arab nationalist passions and subverting less extreme Middle Eastern regimes. In fact, that policy continues to be the core of Arab politics to this very day.


For conspiring against Nasser, Eden was reviled and driven out of office. Yet in retrospect wouldn’t it have been better if Eden’s effort had succeeded? And isn’t there some parallel between Eden and Prime Minister Tony Blair, a man who, whatever his mistakes, has striven to uphold the cause of freedom against forces which make Nasser look mild in comparison? What is this latest incident in retaliation for: the mutilation of a sea captain or murder of a merchant on his way to appreciate the beauties of a Japanese temple? No, the arrest of Iranian government-sponsored

terrorists caught in Iraq.


Iran's goal is to humiliate the West and prove its superiority. It wants to show, as the revolution’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once famously said, that the United States and the West in general “cannot do a damn thing.” It is the radical Islamists and remaining radical Arab nationalists who want to show that they are the ones with the gunboats, or rather the suicidal populace who are willing to hijacking airplanes and cause explosions in Western cities without fear of suffering meaningful retaliation.


In contrast, the West seeks to prove that it is nice, to apologize, to make reparations, to act as the weaker party. But the West is running the equivalent of a school for Middle Eastern politicians, intellectuals and revolutionaries. In this school, they are being taught: You are strong and we are weak; you have ideas to believe in, we merely seek maximum comfort and expediency; if you hit us we will yield or look the other way; we are ready to confess our wrongdoing, you only

speak of your being absolutely in the right. Like good students, they are learning their lessons well.


Meanwhile, imperialism has switched directions, running now from east to west. And if that is already so without nuclear weapons controlled by Tehran, what do we have to look forward to? At least up to now, it was just psychology that made West weak. It isn’t just a matter of gun power, either, for the West refuses to use its economic might -- a force as potent as the battleship or aircraft carrier. But economic, as well as military, supremacy is being conceded to the extremists and dictatorships.


And thus, British navy personnel--like American diplomats a quarter-century ago--are seized and their government is made to apologize. The female prisoner is forced to wear an “Islamist” headscarf to show which culture is to prevail. The West has trouble distinguishing between imperialism and self-defense. This is not the first time that has happened.


Thompson wrote: “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.” But will they be dhimmis?

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Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.

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