what do we do? The seizure by Iran of British sailors and Marines, in Iraqi territorial waters, in which they were operating by UN mandate, is an act of piracy. Iran has once again shown contempt for international law, as it did in 2004. This shouldn't be a surprise - after all the Islamic revolution in Iran began with the invasion of the US Embassy, in flagrant breach of every diplomatic convention in history. There is a precedent, of a sort, for this sort of thing. In 1731, a British privateer, Robert Jenkins, was boarded by the Spanish Garda Costa
off Cuba, tortured and had his ear sliced off.
The result in that case was an indecisive war, marked by enormous casualties from disease and little permanent change. Britain now lacks the capacity for such adventuring, and would do even if it were not embroiled in two concurrent campaigns. But then: what to do? Issuing protests, summoning ambassadors, complaining about maritime law: all are useless against a regime that has abandoned even the pretence of adherence to legality. Military action? Even if directed by the US and Israel, this is a course whose costs are disproportionate to its benefits. Economic sanctions? Targeted travel bans? Both require muliti-lateral agreement throughthe UN - not always easy to obtain.
We're looking toothless, and in many ways that's because we are. A more rigorous defence of British shipping in the Straits of Hormuz might be one way to go forward - ensuring that sailors cannot be ambushed, or that if they are they are capable of defending themselves. But that looks like a recipe for escalation. As with Zimbabwe, as with Iran - the rights and wrongs of the matter are easy to see; it is the proper response that is a conundrum.
UPDATE: This is, incidentally, an act of war on a member of NATO. So, if anyone's looking for a casus belli...