Ahmadinejad releases Brits
(Photo: Iranian TV screenshot)
(Photo: Iranian TV screenshot)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today announced that his country would release the 15 British sailors and marines that his country captured nearly two weeks ago. He made the surprise announcement at a press conference. It was apparently preceded by one of his infamous tirades, in which he harangued Britain for bringing the case up before the Security Council and complained about the invasion of Iraq.
Even if Ahmadinejad dressed it up as a "present" from the Iranian to the British people, I wonder how many Iranians will be convinced that the abduction was a smart move. There should be no doubt that Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials who supported this operation have suffered a humiliating defeat. On this matter, I could not disagree more with Zvi Bar'el, who sees the whole episode as a victory for Iran. According to the Ha'aretz writer, the British reliance on diplomatic means
will now be used by Iran as proof that even powers such as the U.S. and Britain are limited in their ability to use force when it comes to a minor border incident - and that the threat Iran poses is precisely in initiating local incidents that are not sufficiently important to lead to war.I see no evidence for this. If this is what the Iranians have concluded, they will continue to make serious miscalculations. At the end of the day, the whole operation was for naught; I cannot see the slightest tangible gain that Iran might have derived from it.
True, the Guardian reports "speculation that the release was prompted in part by an agreement to let an Iranian representative meet five Iranians detained by US forces in Irbil, northern Iraq, in January." However, even if the Iranians obtained the rights to visit their diplomats or intelligence agents, no one is going to confirm this. Especially after the announcements by President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair that there would be "no quid pro quo," it will be difficult for the Iranians to point to any sort of favorable outcome. The British have repeatedly presented their GPS evidence to the Iranians and to international bodies; in the court of international opinion, the U.K.'s insistence that its troops were "well inside Iraqi waters" is likely to prevail.
Some might argue that at least the Iranians demonstrated their abilities to cause trouble for coalition forces. I would respond, however, that the British will be much more careful from now in all their patrols. They are unlikely to allow their troops to be captured again without some resistance. As for Iranian meddling in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq, it continues to harm coalition and Iraqi forces. But all this was clear before the Revolutionary Guards brushed up on their Piracy 101 skills. The statement by one British crew member, who thanked Ahmadinejad for his "forgiveness" will be seen by the world for what it is - Byzantine manipulation by a weak regime desperate to cover up its silly miscalculation.
In retrospect, it appears that the British did the right thing. By staying calm but not backing down on their core positions (at least not in public), they called Iran's bluff. When I heard about the release of the British troops, I wondered if the case might be instructive for other abduction scenarios - such as the one that sparked the Second Lebanon War. But I think that this is not the type of lesson we can draw from this particular incident. The kind of poker game that the British and Iranians were playing relies on the rules of the international system that regulates interactions between states.
Matters change dramatically when states are confronted with non-state actors. As much as I would criticize the nature of Israel's military response to the abductions of its soldiers, first by a Palestinian faction in the south and then by Hizbullah in the north - a response which ultimately proved ineffective - I don't think Israel could have obtained the kind of outcome that the British achieved. Neither the Palestinian factions nor Hizbullah respond to the threats of international sanctions. Their interests cannot be easily damaged, except by direct military confrontation. And even then, the options are very limited and likely to prove unsuccessful.