Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, an improbable Easter bunny, scored a political victory, both in Iran and internationally, by his "gift" of the return of Britain's 15 hostages. Against all odds, Iran emerged with a win-win from the crisis: winning by its provocation in seizing the hostages in the first place and winning again by its unilateral decision to release them.
The debacle, from its murky start in the Gulf to its end on a Tehran television stage, must be seen in the larger context of Iran's efforts to project power in the Middle East and beyond. Through the aggressive, two-decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons; by massive financial and armaments support to Hizbollah, Hamas and other terrorists; and by its growing subversion in Iraq, Iran's government today is a theological revolution on the march.
Carried out by naval units of the Revolutionary Guard, the core military support for Iran's Islamic revolution,the incident was deliberate and strategic, not simply a frolic and detour by a zealous local commander. Snatching the hostages, whatever waters they were in, was a low-cost way of testing British and allied resolve. What would the British reaction be? In the first instance, the hostages surrendered without a shot fired in self-defence, a strange reaction in a war zone. By day 13, Iran already had its final answer: not much of a reaction at all. This passive, hesitant, almost acquiescent approach barely concealed the Foreign Office's real objective: keeping the faint hope alive that three years of failed negotiations on Iran's nuclear weapons programme would not suffer another, this time possibly fatal, setback.
Tony Blair, the prime minister, said he was "not negotiating but not confronting either". If there were no negotiations and there should not have been in response to a hostage-taking it simply underlines the unilateral nature of Iran's release of the hostages. Moreover, what does "not negotiating but not confronting" actually mean? Unnamed British diplomats briefed the press that they had engaged in "discussions" but not negotiations. One can only await with interest to learn what that distinction without a difference implies. In fact, the doublespeak will convince Tehran and other rogue states and terrorists that hostage-taking throws Britain into a state of confusion, not a state of resolve. The wider world's response was no better. The United Nations and the European Union contributed their usual level of determination precious little and the US was silent, at Britain's behest.
That is the lesson for Iran: it probed and found weakness. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, the president, can undertake equal or greater provocations, confident he need not fear a strong response. Iran held all the high cards and played them at a time and in a manner of its choosing. At the end, British diplomacy was irrelevant. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was the puppet-master throughout, taunting and admonishing Mr Blair not to prosecute the hostages for illegally entering Iranian waters, as they had confessed. That is chutzpah! Amazingly to US ears, some in Britain criticised Mr Blair for being too tough.
Emboldened as Iran now is, and ironically for engagement advocates, it is even less likely there will be a negotiated solution to the nuclear weapons issue, not that there was ever much chance of one. Iran, sensing weakness, has every incentive to ratchet up its nuclear weapons programme, increase its support to Hamas, Hizbollah and others and perpetrate even more serious terrorism in Iraq. The world will be a more dangerous place as a result. Evidence may already be at hand in the deaths of four British soldiers in Basra on Friday.
Quite possibly, the Iranians were divided internally and may well have stumbled into success at the end. This has already inspired the media's commentariat to conclude that the Foreign Office's "softly softly" approach worked. The Captain Ahabs of British and US diplomacy, obsessed by their search for Iranian "moderates", those great white whales, are proclaiming yet another "moderate" victory in this outcome. Surely, the "moderates" prevailed; how else to explain the hostages' release?
Indisputably the winners in Iran were the hardliners. It was Mr Ahmadi-Nejad who stood in the international spotlight for hours on end, who awarded medals to the Revolutionary Guards who captured the hostages, who announced the hostages' release and accepted their thanks. Even if the moderates concurred in the outcome, divergent motives can lead to the same conclusion. The question is, who increased relative to others in the Iranian calculus of power? The evidence unmistakably points to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. If strengthening his hand within the Tehran leadership amounts to success for British diplomacy and Iranian moderates, one hesitates to ask what would constitute failure.
Unfortunately for the west, the mullahs had a happy Easter in Tehran. The only thing risen from this crisis is Iranian determination and resolve to confront us elsewhere, at their discretion, whether on Iraq, nuclear weapons or terrorism.
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