In taking fifteen British sailors prisoner, the Iranian government is merely following its tradition of win-win hostage-taking. When in trouble (and there is some evidence the mullahs are in a certain amount of internal political difficulty in Iran), the best course is to go with the tried and true.
The precedent is a strong one. In fact, the Iranian revolution cut its teeth on hostage-taking in 1979, initiating the famous embassy hostage crisis (approvingly called the “second revolution” by Khomeini) that lasted a photogenic 444 days and revealed the softness of the Western response to such bullying.
Initially, Ayatollah Khomeini thought it possible that the American reaction would be violent. But Jimmy Carter had no such intentions. Even a later attempt at military rescue was so poorly planned as to be ludicrous if it weren’t so tragic. The hostage crisis was milked by the mullahs for its public relations advantages, especially its internal ones in Iran, which may indeed have been the main goal of the operation:
As Ayatollah Khomeini told Iran’s president, “This action has many benefits. … This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us. We can put the constitution to the people’s vote without difficulty, and carry out presidential and parliamentary elections.”
So the hostage-taking was not only an embarrassment to the Great Satan (otherwise known as the US), it afforded the nascent Khomeini regime a cover under which to consolidate power and get approval for an Islamic theocratic constitution. It also made the Iranian Left (whom one might have thought would have been against the establishment of a theocracy) very happy—yeah, let’s stick it to those US imperialist dogs!
The bracing and unifying internal effect of a good hostage-taking has thus been clearly established by precedent, and could be much needed today. Also established are the self-imposed impotence of the US and the British in such situations; is there any chance Ahmadinejad and his overseers, the mullahs, would even consider—as Khomeini did with Carter, at least momentarily—that there will be a strong military reaction by the Blair government to the current crisis?
No. Then as now, it appears that, in Khomeini’s lovely phrase, “America [read: Britain] cannot do a damn thing.”
Here’s some historical perspective:
At the time [of the 1979 hostage crisis] many in the ayatollah’s entourage believed that he was being unnecessarily provocative. Khomeini, however, was dismissive. “America, “he told his secretary, a mullah called Ansari Kermani, “may have a lot of power but lacks the courage to use it.”
According to Kermani, who wrote a hagiographical account of Khomeini’s life in 1983, the ayatollah “always counted on America’s internal divisions” to prevent the formulation and application of any serious policy on any major issue. The ayatollah believed that the American political system was clear proof of the saying attributed to Jaafar al-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam, that “God keeps the enemies of Islam fighting among themselves!”
Just so. Whether it has anything to do with the deity or not, we are certainly still fighting amongst ourselves, and they are most assuredly still counting on it.
And President Ahmadinejad doesn’t have to read history to remember, either; he himself is alleged to have played a major role in the hostage-taking (see photos, then and now):
Here’s Ahmadinejad’s bio, which makes for pleasant reading indeed. Whether or not he was one of the actual hostage-takers, there’s little doubt he was intimately involved in the event, and was actively engaged in the internal terror and executions that followed as the glorious revolution locked itself into power, a position it holds to this day.
Contrast this to the peaceful outfit the British Navy appears to have become. In this interview with British Admiral Sir Alan West (hat tip, Belmont Club) we learn that current British policy left the sailors vulnerable to being taken and used as pawns by the Iranians. The Brits—who were on small boats, away from the mother ship—were inadequately armed for defense, partly because of the way their mission has been conceptualized.
Here is Admiral West on the current rules of engagement. His statements spotlight the dual aims of the military in the area, and how those conflicting goals can lead to a situation that can be easily exploited by an Iranian government bent on thwarting them [emphasis mine]:
The rules are very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting. The reason we are there is to be a force for good.
A laudable goal, no doubt. But the military are not social workers, and pretending they are merely makes them vulnerable to this sort of attack, which ultimately benefits no one but the enemy.
Back in April of 1980, when Carter had finally gotten fed up with futile negotiations for the hostages’ release, and realized the entire episode was humiliating for his Presidency and for the US as a whole, he nevertheless tied the hands of those on the planned hostage rescue mission in advance by insisting on the following rules of engagement:
Another presidential directive concerned the use of nonlethal riot-control agents. Given that the shah’s occasionally violent riot control during the revolution was now Exhibit A in Iran’s human-rights case against the former regime and America, Carter wanted to avoid killing Iranians, so he had insisted that if a hostile crowd formed during the raid, Delta should attempt to control it without shooting people. [The mission's leader] considered this ridiculous. He and his men were going to assault a guarded compound in the middle of a city of more than 5 million people, most of them presumed to be aggressively hostile. It was unbelievably risky; everyone on the mission knew there was a very good chance they would not get home alive. Wade Ishmoto, a Delta captain who worked with the unit’s intelligence division, had joked, “The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in.”
It never came to that, as it turns out; the mission foundered before getting to Tehran.
But the dilemma remains: how to fight a military action, or an entire war, in which part of the goal is to win the hearts and minds of a population that—in rhetorically simpler times—used to be known as “the enemy?” Until Vietnam we dealt with this problem by compartmentalizing it: the gloves were off during the actual war, and afterwards was the time for the social work and reconstruction.
Since Vietnam the situation is murkier because many conflicts (such as the present one) are not wars at all, although in earlier times such acts as that of Iran’s seizing of the sailors would be considered a casus belli. Now, as Admiral West says, we are reluctant to “escalate” to military action for fear of causing a larger war—and our opponents are not reluctant to provoke us because they know that. Paradoxically, our respect for civilian life is being used against us by an enemy that does not share it.