I've been busy of late: about three weeks with no days off in order to complete a Special And Very Secret Project for my employer, not at gunpoint or anything but Goddess knows I need the overtime. Of course, I've spent most of the additional income already on the pizzas and bourbon necessary to sustain such a pace, but at least I feel like I've got something done.
I work in IT, so this sort of thing is what one expects. When one works in the armed forces, however, one expects something rather different - violence, death and constant danger, for instance. To join the Marines and be shocked and appalled at how people are actually shooting at you and everything would be stupid beyond belief, and it is to the credit of the British Navy personnel who were arrested (KIDNAPPED! ABDUCTED! scream the newspapers) by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (AMAHDINEJAD! MAD AYATOLLAHS! TERRORISTS! and so forth) a fortnight ago that they didn't gripe and carp about how shocking their treatment was, when from their point of view it really wasn't. Even the BBC, normally quite sensible in this sort of situation, went quite over the top in describing the aggressive questioning, mind games, solitary confinement and rough handling as 'shocking treatment'. The sailors themselves seemed rather nonplussed by it all, if a little annoyed at the IRG for using them as propaganda tools, and rather more patient than I would have been at the press conference while journalists, desperate to make this whole escapade more lurid than it actually was, pressed them over and over again for details of their mistreatment.
Nothing they described is strictly illegal, as far as I know: it sounds no worse than how our own armed forces (and police) treat prisoners, except for the noisy gun-cocking thing. It pales in comparison to Abu Ghraib, of course, but that certainly was illegal. More significantly (at least, from Iran's point of view) their treatment of the prisoners was a hell of a lot more civilised than what the US is doing at Guantanamo Bay. We can (and certainly will) argue that it was against the Geneva Convention, but that only applies to prisoners of war, and in any case the US has been arguing for it to be dismantled for some time now.
So, what was the point? It certainly served to get the British press and public riled: the government too, at least at first. It served to show up the complexity of the Iranian government, where a single military group can override the president and various factions are constantly fighting each other for advantage and control. The propaganda, if you can call it that, was pretty clumsy stuff and served only to stir up the hardliners who don't need convincing to hate the West. And Amahdinejad was made to look as if he wasn't in control of his country, which of course he isn't - Iranian government simply doesn't work like European ones and this is a point that seemed to be lost on most of our media.
The point, then, is obscure. It could simply be that the IRG wanted to kick up a fuss, and succeeded, possibly to the detriment of their country in global terms; it could be that everything - including the intragovernmental wrangling about what to do with the prisoners - was a stunt to distract from the nuclear question; it could even be that it was a cockup, some bad navigation on the part of the IRG that the rest of the government had to clear up as best it could without losing too much face.
None of which explains why Amahdinejad is so relaxed about the whole episode, or why Blair looks so hunted, or why British politicians changed gear so abruptly halfway through and incurred the wrath of the more jingoistic tabloids, or crucially where the hell the American administration was during all this. Consider for a moment: the US is adamant that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and considers this a serious threat. The Iranians are monitoring troop movements closely enough that they could stage this arrest in the first place. Are we really supposed to believe that the US have no satellites watching Iran? No pictures of the area? No information on the exact location of those gunboats when they moved in on our sailors?
The US could have cleared up the whole question of whether we were in Iranian waters or not with a single satellite image: they didn't, which indicates that they withheld information that could have resolved the situation before it became a crisis in the hope that they could let everyone get good and angry and take another step towards the war with Iran that they're clearly gagging for. John Bolton's boneheaded slagging off of the UK for coming across as weak and defeated (yeah, at least we still have jobs, John) lends a certain weight toward this, and provokes speculation that maybe the US initiated the whole thing.
This is the Tomorrow Never Dies scenario: supposing the US jerried their GPS satellites (remember: they control the GPS network - the satellites belong to them and they objected strongly when Europe declared its intent to launch our own GPS satellite network, one Bush can't switch off when it suits him) to place our troops inside Iranian waters but convince them that they were not. The difference is only 1.7 nautical miles, according to the sailors' statements today - not that hard to accomplish, surely. The whole episode has benefitted the Republican hawks more than anyone else... and it would explain why Amahdinejad is barely able to control his giggles, and why Blair looks as if he's been fucked up the arse with a mophandle. He had that same expression after it became clear there were no WMDs in Iraq, the I've-been-landed-right-in-it look. No matter what you think of the man, his memoirs are going to make for interesting reading.