Tuesday 3 April 2007

Painfully unfunny once again

You will have spotted the unwelcome revival of that always painfully unfunny drama, the Iranian hostage crisis. The one at their embassy in London in 1980 closed after a mere five days, thanks to the robust action of the SAS. The much bigger production at the US embassy in Tehran began in the previous November and ran for a record-breaking 444 days. Lousy reviews of President Carter’s failure to resolve it dished his chances of a second term in the White House and so ushered in the age of Ronald Reagan. So at least it wasn’t all bad news.

One hopes that the current disgraceful captivity of our Naval personnel will be ended much closer to the Willie Whitelaw than the Jimmy Carter timescale. The signs to date, though, are hardly encouraging. Even though their ship was in Iraqi waters acting on a UN mandate, the UN seems curiously reluctant to exert any pressure on the screwballs in Tehran. Our trusty allies in the US also remained silent for so long that I began to wonder whether we had any influence at the White House, despite all those sacrifices of blood and treasure designed to secure it.

So here we are: one of the world’s larger economies, equipped with nuclear weapons, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Yet a bunch of fanatics can kidnap our sailors and marines, parade them on TV and threaten them with a show trial. And, apparently, we can do nothing much about it.

I find myself longing for the days when the Royal Navy would have been despatched in force to bombard Iranian ports until the captives were handed over, along with a grovelling apology and a cheque to cover our expenses. Sadly, this is not a practical option today, with the enfeebled remains of the Navy largely mothballed to save money for more important things like the NHS database and London Olympics.

Now, is it not just possible that we are in this mess because we are perceived to be weak? Perhaps because our conventional armed forces are well known to be rundown and overstretched? Or because we have a lame duck Prime Minister who has put himself on the fast track to oblivion? Or a Foreign Secretary who is widely regarded as a joke in questionable taste? When her promotion was revealed to her, Mrs Beckett famously disclosed that her reaction was a single, four letter expletive. Appropriately enough, as that was exactly what every thinking person in Britain and the wider world said when the news broke.

This is the same woman whose abilities have been so powerfully demonstrated by her handling of the single farm payments scheme at her previous ministry, DEFRA (the Directorate for the Eradication of Farming and Related Activities). A success so stunning that even a committee dominated by Labour MPs suggested that she should have been sacked.

If I were one of those unfortunate Marines, I’d be saying, “Cheer up, lads, at least we’ve got Ma Beckett fighting our cause and oh …” Unfortunately the remainder of that sentence is not suitable for publication in a family newspaper.

It is, I am sure, too much to hope that the Iranian regime will look at the total lack of leverage Britain possesses, despite its nuclear arsenal, and wonder what is the point of having one itself. For my own part, if (God forbid) any serious harm were to come to the team from HMS Cornwall, I’d be quite happy to press the button that would convert Tehran into a smouldering, radioactive wasteland. But I can see why many people would consider that to be an unwise escalation.

Perhaps best then if I never, ever stand for public office. Not even for the parish council. It’s just a shame that certain others do not similarly recognise their limitations. No names, no pack-drill. But I’m sure you can guess who I have in mind.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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