At this point in the episode, the political oneupmanship almost concluded, we should take note of what the Iranian regime was looking for when they arrested 15 Royal Navy personnel and held them for 13 days. An international incident? A war? Probably not. Instead, they were likely looking to be recognized as a regime that will stand up to the West, perhaps one that is able to “humiliate” the West the way that the Middle East has been humiliated in the last century and more.
What else could motivate their action? Even if the UK military was inside Iranian waters, which the UK says they were not, holding military personnel in isolation is illegal internationally and the Iran regime has little to gain from thumbing their noses at most of the world. Except, perhaps, an opportunity to spin the news — and world opinion — in a pro-Iranian way without giving in on their nuclear program.
It’s a kind of good cop, bad cop tactic, except that the regime is both cops. On one hand, Iran behaves insanely by abducting 15 people working in accordance with the UN, scaring the crap out of most of the world. Could all-out war have started over the 15 sailors? I think so. America seems to be waiting for Iran to “make their day.” Then the Iranians hold the sailors for nearly two weeks without any noticeable willingness to negotiate. The general sentiment becomes, “If they are this unreasonable over a small boundary incident, how nuts are they going to be when they have nuclear weapons?”
Then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a lengthy and tedious (my butt got stuck to the couch) speech in which he described the history of Iran and the list of crimes committed against it by the West, concluding with a magnanimous gesture of “generosity” in releasing the military pesonnel. When I watched the drama unfold on television, my first response was that perhaps the Iranian regime is not as completely nuts as I had assumed.
But it turns out that that “generosity” is not how the sailors would describe their treatment. To hear them tell it, their Iranian captors were “deliberately aggressive and unstable” during the intial confrontation. Given the greater Iranian fire power, the Brits thought it sensible to allow themselves to be taken rather than risk an international incident that could lead to war. Once captured, their treatment was appalling. They were stripped, held in isolation from one another, repeatedly bound, blindfolded, and held against walls while soliders cocked their rifles. The sound of one of them being sick, they say, sounded very much like a throat being cut. Not nice. (But before we let ourselves become outraged, let us remember that they were treated far, far better than some prisoners held by the Americans.)
I am not sure the Iranian regime would have executed those sailors and I am not sure they would have held them much longer, but what does seem clear is that the Iranians are able to back down when pressure is brought to bear. According to some reports, a “high-level” line of communication was opened between the Iranian regime and the UK. I would imagine that robust threats on both sides helped to shape the outcome. While it is a good bet that the Iranian people do not want a war with the West, it now seems that the Iranian regime is also willing to avoid one — but only if and when they can bolster their dignity while they do it. Is this too much to ask? Surely not. An Iranian colleague of mine told me recently that Iranian people want nuclear capability simply to be recognized and respected as they once were. Perhaps if we bolster their reputation while they do not have nuclear capability, they won’t be so desperate to obtain it.
The bickering about what actually happened continues, but at least one part of the story is instructive. That moment is the confrontation itself, during which, according to the British sailors, the Revolutionary Guards purposefully worked themselves into a state of near hysteria. It seemed clear to the sailors that, if they did not relent, the Iranians would have convinced themselves that it would be okay to kill the defenceless Brits, including one woman. Nastiness ensued, violence was certainly threatened, politicians lied about it . . . but nobody died and both sides came out looking okay.
It is unlikely that the Iranian regime will ever play nicely, and with good reason. So putting aside the guns and offering mutual dignity is probably a pragmatic and worthy goal.