T HE OUTCOME of the Iran-British stand-off is widely seen as a public relations victory for Iran. There was a fiasco over the freed sailors selling their stories to the press and then being told not to raised the discomfort level another notch for the British Government.
But it was also a victory for common sense over machismo, for diplomacy over war. No shots fired, no one killed. Yet another argument in its favour might be that former American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, is unhappy at the outcome, seeing it as appeasement.
Five years ago, the same set of incidents with exactly the same sequence of events would have produced instantaneous and almost universal outrage and condemnations of Iran. Few would have queried the British version of events or doubted the veracity of their claims regarding the positioning of British ships and crew. It is only when the initial instinctive bellicosity from politicians in London gave way to quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and this was matched by a parallel shift in Iranian statements, that the tense stand-off was resolved with surprising swiftness. Thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Iran deals from strength in its region and can afford to show a compassionate face at least sometimes.
As a corollary, few would have given credence to competing Iranian claims contesting the British version. Iran's regime traces its descent directly from the Islamic revolution that toppled the Shah and flatly rejected many established diplomatic conventions and niceties. The searing images of kidnapped US diplomats held hostage for several months in their embassy premises is firmly etched in many minds and still exerts a powerful pull on the American political psyche. Iran has also earned its reputation as a supporter of international terrorism.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has added to this legacy with fiery and intemperate threats against Israel, denials of the Holocaust, denunciations of the US, challenges to the UN's authority, and rejections of international demands to end Iran's unsafeguarded nuclear program.
And yet when 15 British naval personnel were captured by Iran on charges of having strayed illegally into Iranian waters, the anticipated chorus of international support for Britain was strangely missing. Even the Europeans showed less than fulsome solidarity with a fellow-EU member at the very time that the union was celebrating 50 years of peace and solidarity.
The silence had a lot to do with the loss of credibility of the Blair Government and little to do with a hitherto unsuspected wellspring of sympathy and support for Iran.
The lies, deceit, spin and manipulation of facts and analyses leading to the Iraq war have shredded the credibility of the governments that went to war. Perhaps the leaders never learnt the moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf.
In the infamous Downing Street memorandum, it was clear that facts and intelligence were twisted by officials in the US and Britain to fit a predetermined policy to go to war. As part of this, they embarked on a policy of deliberate provocation that could provide a suitable pretext to launch a war. With memories of that betrayal of the public trust and in the context of escalating rhetoric over the threat to regional and world security posed by a nuclear Iran, Britain failed to prove to a deeply sceptical world that it had not deliberately provoked a crisis to justify attacking Iran. It is in the nature of such crises that Britain could not have provided conclusive proof, any more than Saddam could prove the negative of not having nuclear weapons.
There is also an element of the countries that embarked on a war of choice that has proven to be so catastrophic it surely will rank among the greatest foreign policy blunders of all times for both Britain and the US having brought it on themselves. To compound their international credibility deficit, the leaders who went to war see progress where others see daily carnage and weekly worsening of the security situation. Even King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia allies for the Bush family don't come any stauncher than the Saudi royal family recently described the American presence in Iraq as an illegitimate occupation.
In 2004 a team of epidemiologists conducted a rigorous statistical study to show that in the 18 months since the Iraq war, 98,000 people had perished. Fiercely attacked for its methodology and results, the team did a follow-up study and concluded that the total number of deaths caused by the war was a mind-numbing 650,000. The reaction from Britain and the US was frankly dismissive. Yet now we learn, thanks to documents unearthed by the BBC, that the British Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser believed the research to be ''robust'', ''balanced'', and close to ''best practice''. His advice was to be cautious ''in publicly criticising the study''.
Tony Blair's adviser concluded that, ''The survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished. It is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.'' A government concerned about the humanitarian carnage unleashed by the war might have called for urgent independent verification.
Instead Blair was advised to note that the overriding message was that there were no accurate or reliable death statistics in Iraq. This brings to mind the saying that the reason for the sun never setting on the British Empire was that even God would not trust an Englishman in the dark.
A simple look at the map shows that the British ships are operating far from home and in Iran's neighbourhood. There is a long history of Western invasions of and attacks against Iran. Iran received neither understanding, sympathy nor support from the West as the victim of Iraqi aggression, including the use of chemical weapons. UN Security Council warnings and censure carry diminishing weight in the court of world opinion because it is an unreconstructed creation of 1945 and caves in too often to Anglo-US pressure.
Similarly, the ''coalition of the willing'' set back international humanitarian law by belittling and circumventing the Geneva Conventions and norms in the treatment of prisoners. It requires chutzpah to complain about Iran's treatment of the captured crew after the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The Iraq war did great damage also to UN prestige and authority. Having helped to throw the UN in the rubbish bin of history in 2003, Britain cannot conveniently lift it out, dust it off and put it to use again in 2007. Besides, if the US can insist that it does not need a UN permission slip to defend America, then so can Iran.
A humane conscience is pleased and relieved that the captured sailors have returned home to their families. But humanism does not stop with Western victims; it should equally embrace the victims of abuses perpetrated by Westerners.