PRACTICING FOR A SHOWDOWN….Last Friday, a group of 15 sailors and Marines from the British frigate HMS Cornwall piled into a pair of inflatable boats and began patrolling the Shatt al-Arab waterway, just off the coast of Iraq where it borders Iran. It was a routine anti-smuggling operation, but it quickly turned non-routine: after boarding a dhow to look for contraband they were surrounded by six Iranian patrol boats and taken prisoner. But if the boats were really in Iraqi waters, as the British claim, whey didn’t the Cornwall do something? Sir Alan West, who was First Sea Lord in 2004 when the Iranians did something similar, explains:

What are the rules of engagement in this type of situation?

The rules are very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting. The reason we are there is to be a force for good, to make the whole area safe, to look after the Iraqi big oil platforms and also to stop smuggling and terrorism there.

So we try to downplay things. Rather then roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were effectively able to be captured and taken away.

If we find this is going to be a standard practice we need to think very carefully about what rules of engagement we want and how we operate. One can’t allow as a standard practice nations to capture a nation’s servicemen. That is clearly wrong.

I imagine the Iranians will release the British prisoners shortly, but this is nonetheless yet another demonstration that they seem at least as eager to escalate tensions as any neocon in the vice president’s office. And the result? Well, when both sides are eager for a showdown, you usually get one eventually. It’s only a matter of when.