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The War of Jenkins’s Ear

The British have history with regard to kidnapping sailors – on both sides of the ship. In the early 18th Century, Spanish sailors boarded British ships pursuant to a treaty, but in 1731, Captain Robert Jenkins claimed the Spanish had severed his ear. According to reports, in 1738 Jenkins exhibited his ear (which had been pickled) to the House of Commons and the following year, the British began what has been known as the War of Jenkins’s Ear.

The British have history with regard to kidnapping sailors – on both sides of the ship. In the early 18th Century, Spanish sailors boarded British ships pursuant to a treaty, but in 1731, Captain Robert Jenkins claimed the Spanish had severed his ear. According to reports, in 1738 Jenkins exhibited his ear (which had been pickled) to the House of Commons and the following year, the British began what has been known as the War of Jenkins’s Ear. On the other hand, the snatching of Colonial seamen by British sailors was one of the injustices to which the Founding Fathers referred in the Declaration of Independence. It was one of the proximate causes of the War of 1812.

But if Britain has experience with the impressing of sailors, Israel has experience with Iran or Iranian agents. Evidence indicates that Ron Arad, captured in 1982, was transferred to Iran in 1988. This past summer, Hamas reached into Israel from Gaza to kidnap Gilad Shalit and there is evidence that Iran is demanding that Hamas hang onto him, despite Egyptian and other efforts to obtain his release. Hezbollah, Iran’s lapdog in Lebanon kidnapped Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser from inside Israel. America’s own hostages spent 444 days in Iranian hands.

Iran has been poking directly at coalition forces in Iraq for some time, including an incident last fall in which an Iranian platoon crossed into Iraq using rocket propelled grenades and small arms to attack a US-Iraqi patrol. This goes hand-in-hand with Iranian military and financial support for Shiite militias and Sunni radicals in Iraq, ginning the sectarian violence from both ends. The 15 British marines are only the latest round.

There are several possible reasons for increasingly bold Iranian aggression against Western targets. First, and most likely, Iran wants to trade the hostages either for Iranians arrested by American forces late last year in Erbil, or for Revolutionary Guards Commander Ali Rez Asghari, who defected in Turkey a few weeks ago. Or wants payback. Or wants a military/diplomatic incident to deflect Iranian public opinion, which has been running heavily against the regime as economic sanctions increase their bite. Or wants to deflect attention from the unanimous vote in the UN Security Council on enhanced sanctions. Or wants to increase the price for the coalition of staying in Iraq. Or wants to create a rift between the US and Britain.

Whatever. The focus should not be on what Iran wants, but on how Britain – and the US as its ally – can best respond. It may be that Iran overplayed its hand through direct aggression before it is nuclear capable, leaving the British and their allies some choices. The scenario with nuclear weapons in it is horrifying.

They went to war over Jenkins’s ear. Diplomacy would be the preferred option in this case. But we have our doubts about it unless the powers behind Ahmadinejad decide to rein him in to reap the benefit of playing “good cop/bad cop.” The mullahs previously had reprimanded Ahmadinejad for raising tensions with the West. They are no less committed to nuclear capability than he, making any such distinction meaningless for future purposes, but we can hope it works this time.