Ben White: British Marines

By Ben White
Special to

Even as the British marines were released without charge from Iranian custody to return home to Britain, the media couldn’t help but enjoy one last spasm of outrage over the “hostage crisis”. “Humiliation” sang the newspaper chorus, while the Daily Express helpfully explained the reason for the marines sporting open-necked shirts: in Iran, apparently, ties “are seen as symbols of Western decadence”.
While pundits and politicians have differed in their interpretation of how the incident has affected Britain’s reputation, there has been a remarkable amount of unity in the response of the British government, press and public opinion to the marines’ arrest, a framework characterised by typical imperial arrogance.

In this racialised discourse, Iran is simultaneously the object of colonial scorn and condescension, and is elevated to the level of evil, irrational menace. This dual approach, while apparently contradictory, does important ideological work. Iran is stripped of all the normal ‘privileges’ afforded to states; forbidden to defend itself, presumed to act ‘irrationally’, it’s very sovereignty malleable and penetrable.

Meanwhile, the motivations ascribed to the Iranian government are those of the madman or evil-doer. Mirroring the debate on Iran’s nuclear energy programme, Iranian actions during the marines’ detention are not seen as those of a ‘Western’ (marking an ideological rather than geographic location) state, but rather, the wicked scheming of irrational fanatics.

An example of this was the widespread use of the term “hostages” to describe the detained marines, despite the fact that Iran never made “demands”. Hostages are the preserve of criminal gangs, kidnappers, terrorists, and rogue states. We take prisoners, or detainees, always under the rule of law; they act outside the law “inexcusably”.

Likewise, it is the Iranians who are said to be obsessed with “propaganda”, even though it was the British government and MoD who distributed a fictitious map of the water’s territorial demarcations for an all too eager press pack.

As is often the case in a colonial-inflected dynamic, an inverted comparison can be instructive. Two of Iran’s neighbours – Iraq and Afghanistan – are occupied by foreign powers whose governments are openly hostile to Tehran’s leadership. Furthermore, there have been attacks inside Iran by groups operating under the UK/US occupations aimed at destabilising the Iranian government.

Imagine if France and Ireland were both occupied by Iran, and suspicious bomb attacks were occurring in mainland Britain – would we not arrest Iranian armed forces we found in the English Channel? Iran, however, is said to have behaved “unreasonably”, with the additional implications of untrustworthiness and a hint of possible insanity.

Interestingly, the media have made almost no reference to a similar incident three years ago, when straying British forces were initially detained by Iran, then released a mere three days later. In fact, accidental territorial incursions are relatively commonplace around the world, and are usually resolved with the minimum of fuss. So who gains by increasing tensions with racialised discourse and polemic?

Even so-called liberal newspapers called for the suspension of EU preferential trade agreements, in contrast to their ‘softly softly’ approach to Israel, where similar sanctions against an illegal occupier are considered extreme or anti-Semitic. Commentators across the political spectrum pontificated on the minimum required to “pacify” the Iranian desire for propaganda and honour, as well as their insatiable need to “humiliate” the West.

But the root of this entire incident is the war in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq has proved to be both a manifestation, and intensifier, of the worst imperial British instincts, as demonstrated by the way in which this incident has been viewed domestically. Inevitably, it is also part of the context of preparing for military action against Iran, as the US and UK governments desperately look for a scapegoat for their failed occupation and defeat.

-Ben White is a commentator; his work has been published in many print and online publications, and has reported from the Middle East during his frequent travels in the region.

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