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Britain is Taking Right Approach with Iran

By Gerard Baker

This weekend, Britain will mark the 25th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, when Argentine forces invaded the small group of British islands in the South Atlantic, 1,500 miles off the coast of Argentina.

It was inevitable, given the coincidence of timing and the circumstances, that comparisons would be drawn between that conflict, which ended in a triumphant recovery of the islands by UK forces two months later, and the humiliation heaped on Britain in the last week by the seizure of 15 British sailors in the waters near the Persian Gulf.

Then, as now, the incident involved an obvious breach of international law by an odious regime, a serial offender against human rights. Then, as now, a large section of the British media chose to remain essentially neutral in the struggle (or even exhibited sympathy with the enemy), questioning the validity of the British claims, and seeming to give equal weight to the words of the prime minister in Downing Street and the autocratic government on the other side. Then , as now, even gung-ho hardliners in Britain expressed grave doubts about the idea that there might be a military solution to the crisis.

In the current interpretation of history that is where the similarities end. The key difference, according to Tony Blair's critics in the UK, is that, whereas he wrings his hands and does nothing to halt this flagrant abuse of British rights and of the country's citizens, Margaret Thatcher, prime minister in 1982, boldly declared the outrage would not stand, assembled a massive naval task force to confront it and pulled off a magnificent military victory that restored international law and healed Britain's wounded pride.

Let me state, for the record, that I am an inveterate fan of Mrs Thatcher's and regard her as one of the giants of the 20th century for her contribution to the advancement of political and economic freedom around the world. But it is important to record that this version of events that occurred 25 years ago and the sorry contrast it seems to represent with what is happening today is simply hooey.

The first point to make is that it was the ineptitude and weakness of Mrs Thatcher's government in the face of mounting indications of aggression from Argentina that allowed the Falklands to be captured in the first place. Her ministers had spent a good deal of time and effort over the previous three years (by their own admission) hinting to an increasingly hostile Argentine government that they would essentially like to get rid of the Falklands, which were regarded by Whitehall as an expensive nuisance.

The critical decision that historians are agreed probably emboldened the Argentines to invade was the announcement by the Thatcher government a few months earlier of Britain's intention to scrap HMS Endurance, the only naval vessel on patrol in the area and the only military materiel even vaguely capable of defending the Falklands. This is particularly worth noting given the criticism now being leveled against Mr Blair for his programme of cuts in the Royal Navy's surface fleet. What's more, the criticism of the British naval commander in the Gulf incident echoes the criticism of the commander of Royal Marines on the Falklands when the Argentines invade in early April 1982. The Marines offered only token resistance and in fact surrendered shortly after the invasion after incurring only minimal casualties.

Second, while it is indeed true that the Thatcher government, under great political pressure from its own Conservative MPs and the Labor opposition, launched an enormous task force from Britain days after the invasion, it was far from clear that it would actually fight to retake the islands. For weeks as the task force sailed, Britain was involved in frantic diplomatic efforts to seek a settlement that would have averted war, but at considerable cost to international law and to Britain's honor.

A few weeks after the invasion Mrs Thatcher came perilously close to accepting a compromise on the future of the Falklands - brokered, by the way, by the US administration of Ronald Reagan (of which more in a moment) - that would have provided for a kind of joint administration of the Falklands. In other words, Argentina would have been rewarded for its aggression by achieving something it had never managed before - a powerful say over the political control of the islands.

It was only thanks to the sheer idiocy of the Argentine government, led by the oafish General Leopoldo Galtieri, that the deal was not accepted. It is highly questionable whether Mrs Thatcher could possibly have survived the humiliation such a "compromise" would have represented. She would have been forced out, either by her own party, or by the electorate, after just one term.

In a further instructive twist to the debate about what Britain should do about its Iranian-held hostages today, it is worth noting that Mrs Thatcher and her government faced considerable opposition to a successful military recovery of the Falklands from an unlikely source - that administration of President Reagan.

The military junta in Argentina was Washington's valuable ally in the global struggle against communism. America had lingering historical objections to colonial British intervention in the western hemisphere. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the United Nations at the time, and an early champion of a neoconservative foreign policy, was firmly on the Argentine side, a useful reminder that in those days some of the most influential neocons actually rather liked and supported fascist dictatorships.

It was only the steely and determined efforts of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (later, pointedly, knighted by the Queen), the sheer bovine implacability of the Argentine leadership and the good judgment of Ronald Reagan himself that ensured the US eventually jumped the right way and provided diplomatic and military logistical support to the UK. So when you hear American conservatives bemoaning the fact that there is no-one of Mrs Thatcher's stature in Britain these days, remind yourself that the main reason she survived was no thanks whatsoever to their contributions.

Where does all this leave Mr Blair and his government as it seeks to recover Britain's sailors and restore its pride? This time, thank goodness, the US is firmly on our side. But it is not clear what difference that will make. The military options open to the British government look rather limited. It lacks the intelligence and the military capacity to mount a rescue mission from its meager task force in the Gulf. Though the US has much more firepower and presumably better intelligence, I'm guessing the US navy does not plan to start a war with Iran in an effort to rescue 15 British sailors.

The right approach, as frustratingly dilatory as it seems, is the one the UK is currently taking. The Iranian attack is an outrage, but it presents an important opportunity to demonstrate to the world (which shouldn't need reminding, but does) just how vile a regime Teheran is. Let no-one be in any doubt as to who is the aggressor is. Produce the evidence that this was no hostile action by the British but simply an operation rooted in international law. Steadily ratchet up the diplomatic pressure on Iran, isolating the country in international opinion. All of that will lay a much better groundwork in global public opinion as the US and its allies prepare for the long difficult struggle to stop Iran from achieving regional hegemony under the shelter of its own nuclear umbrella.

It is frustrating work, but all of the alternatives are worse. What is certain is that bewailing British weakness through false analogies to a very different crisis a quarter of a century ago won't bring anyone home anytime soon.

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email: gerard.baker@thetimes.co.uk

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