The Difficulties of Diplomacy: the case of the Corfu Channel and Albania’s gold

Much has been made recently of the inability for swift progress to be made with regards to Iran’s nuclear policy. Talks in Geneva are ongoing and yet recent discussions have stalled despite much goodwill between the Iranians and their Western counterparts. Equally, the process of destroying Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal has been described as inadequately slow by some observers and next year’s deadline for their complete destruction seems ambitious.

John Kerry appears desperate to rush through a resolution on Iran's nuclear programme
John Kerry appears desperate to rush through a resolution on Iran’s nuclear programme

Diplomacy is a notoriously complicated matter and the fact that Barack Obama’s recent conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the first contact between men in their positions since the fall of the Shah should not surprise us. As the Corfu Channel case proves, diplomacy is both petty and vindictive, and endlessly complex.

In 1946, the UK broke off diplomatic relations with communist Albania after two of its ships were struck by mines in the Corfu Channel for the loss of 44 lives. “The mines could not have been laid in the recently swept Channel without at least the connivance of Albania” a British Foreign Office letter complained.

Mine damage on the HMS Volage in the Corfu Channel
Mine damage on the HMS Volage in the Corfu Channel


The International Court of Justice agreed and ordered Albania to pay £843,947 in compensation. A derisory counter-offer of £50,000 was quickly snubbed by the British and relations between the two countries ceased. One of the earliest diplomatic casualties of the Cold War had occurred.

By the early 1970s, however, the global picture had changed. Albania’s brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha, had irrevocably turned his back on the Soviet Union after the revisionism of Nikita Khrushchev and, following the Sino-Soviet split, the Albanians began to establish close relations with Mao.

Out of two evils, the Chinese were preferable to the West, particularly after Richard Nixon’s visit to meet Mao in 1972. Britain was suddenly keen to re-establish diplomatic relations with Albania.

Improved relations between Mao and Hoxha gave British diplomats an incentive for reconciliation
Improved relations between Mao and Hoxha gave British diplomats an incentive for reconciliation

Achieving this was problematic for a variety of reasons:

1) Albania had still not compensated Britain for the Corfu Channel Incident of 1946.

2) In response, Britain had withheld over 1,500kg of gold which had been looted from the National Bank of Albania (NBA) by the Nazis during WWII. Valued at £630,000, the gold had been recognised as belonging to Albania after WWII by the Tripartite Gold Commission, consisting of Britain, France and the USA.

After the Corfu Channel Incident, the British kept hold of the gold (which had been securely stored in London) and even recognised a counter-claim on the metal by the Italians who argued that they had established and staffed the NBA prior to the Nazi invasion and therefore should be compensated accordingly.

3) If this wasn’t enough, the Albanians resented what they saw as British attempts to overthrow the communist government during the 1940s and 1950s.

With the Albanians apparently not keen on re-establishing relations unless Britain made a gesture of good faith, London had a conundrum. Its diplomats acknowledged that it would be politically embarrassing to be seen trying to beg support from the Albanians by offering them concessions.

As such, it was agreed to send a non-governmental representative to the Italian Embassy in Tirana with instructions to convince the Italians to act as a go-between between Britain and Albania.

That the diplomatic correspondence ends here attests to its lack of success. Indeed, it was only after the fall of communism in 1991 that Britain and Albania re-established relations and the British got compensation for the Corfu Channel Incident and the Albanians received their gold.

For 45 years the impasse remained because of the difficulties of conducting diplomacy between two states ideologically, politically and culturally distinct from one another. Add to this petty notions of international reputation and one-upsmanship and it is no surprise that the resolution of the incident took a complete change of political system in Eastern Europe.

For those demanding instant results in the Middle East, they may want to consider the barriers to such an occurrence given what’s at stake.

Iranian Nuclearisation in Perspective: war mongering or power balancing?

Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defence Minister, has warned that Iran’s supposed development of nuclear weapons is the “greatest challenge” facing not only the Middle East but the world today. Because of Iran’s pariah status within the international community it is understandable that states, both regional and global, should express some concern at the continuing refusal of the Islamic Republic to 1) acknowledge it’s nuclear weapons program and 2) abandon it.

The general consensus in Israel, particularly within Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling party, appears to be that unless Israel strikes first then a nuclear-equipped Iran will some day destroy the Jewish state for good. Such is the intensity of this concern that it is believed that several contingency plans have been drawn up for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it does not cease enriching uranium.

Iran's nuclear facilities are hidden below layers of desert rock
Iran’s nuclear facilities are hidden below layers of desert rock

What has been forgotten by the Israeli leadership is that even if Iran attains nuclear weapons, the Ayatollah and his President know that their use would mean virtual state suicide. If the Israelis were unable to retaliate to an Iranian nuclear attack, you can guarantee that the Americans would be able to do so.

If anything, it is the Iranians that should feel vulnerable to attack and their belligerence in pursuing their economic policy suggests that they feel this. Iran has few regional allies and Israel is a severe existential threat possessing both nuclear weapons, in addition to a variety of other offensive and defensive armaments bought from, or developed with, America. As such, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may help to establish a more even balance of power in the Middle East, albeit a precarious one.

There is no reason why such a nuclear power balance should automatically fail. Indeed, one need only look at India and Pakistan for a contemporary example. When India conducted its “Smiling Buddha” nuclear test in 1974, panic ensued within the Pakistani political and military hierarchy.

India's first nuclear test caught Pakistan off-guard and tilted the regional power balance
India’s first nuclear test caught Pakistan off-guard and tilted the regional power balance

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Prime Minister at the time, responded with outrage at the UN. He later recalled:

Pakistan was exposed to a kind of nuclear threat and blackmail unparalleled elsewhere…If the world’s community failed to provide political insurance to Pakistan and other countries against the nuclear blackmail, these countries would be forced to launch atomic bomb programs of their own.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan did pursue its own nuclear programme in the subsequent decades and finally achieved its goal by conducting an underground nuclear test at Ras Koh Hills in May 1998. Again, there were global concerns that nuclear armageddon was about to be unleashed and that, with nuclear weapons pointing across the heavily-militarised Kashmir frontier, Pakistan and India would destroy each other.

Doubts persist over the sophistication of Pakistan's nuclear warheads
Doubts persist over the sophistication of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads

Nevertheless, if anything was ever going to happen it would have been during the years that India held nuclear supremacy. Yet, despite conducting further tests, there was never any real suggestion that India would strike at Pakistan. Quite simply, a state cannot use nuclear weapons with impunity. A nuclear strike against another country is unforgivable and would trigger an international response from other global nuclear powers.

Therefore, the panic over the Iranian nuclear programme is overhyped. Israel is overreacting in the hope that it wins support from America for a tactical strike against the facilities of its main rival in the region, a state that supports Hezbollah operations against the Jewish people.

What we should be concerned about is the potential for nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state entities; i.e. terrorists. They are unconstrained by state rationality and have a track record of suicidal destruction. That is why nuclear proliferation must be curtailed, not just to serve the interests of Israel or other states eager to cling on to regional ascendancy.