March 26th, 2007

Iran: the proud hostage-taking tradition and the rules of engagement

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.

33 Responses to “Iran: the proud hostage-taking tradition and the rules of engagement”

  1. frank martin Says:

    The core problem sits in two places. So long as behavior goes on unpunished it continues and so long as the west holds the arab world in low contempt as essentially unequal, they are hesitant to hold arab governments in account for clearly criminal behavior. Behavior like this that would have brought two european governments to the brink of war is not viewed that way when one of the players is a poor third world country.

    Iran does this, and the world shrugs with a “oh those people are at it again”.

    What is different about this event is that usually Iran does this sort of game via third parties like hezbollah, and then steps into the world scene to help “negotiate”. This is direct state action by one state to another and not the sort of polite ‘plausible deniability’ that has been their normal mode of doing things is not presence in this event.

    This is a significant fact and is being overlooked.

    What we in the West must learn to do is to set the tone of diplomacy by setting the standards of what is and is not considered proper. If getting to the negotiating table is accomplished by blowing up hotels and pizza parlors, then that is what will be done. If blowing up hotels and pizza parlors gets a brigade of marines in your harbor, very few hotels and pizza parlours will be harmed as a result.

    If taking hostages gets you time with the British government…

    But be be warned. The risk here is not to the impact of the British government and its policies, but to you and I. Governments of the West who reward this behavior are ensuring that the rest of us, the easy to reach soft underbelly called “civilians” or “tourists” will quickly become targets for more hostage taking if this goes on as a matter of practice.

    My advice is to decide on what behavior you want from your enemy and reward that behavior. Punish bad actions and do not reinforce bad ideas.

    my advice? This is a state action, so England and the world should react as such.

    Summon Iranian ambassador.

    In one paragraph, announce the the United Kingdom will respond to this action as an open act of war against its people. Give 24 hours for personel to be returned to neutral country.

    When response is not given by Iranian government, do the following.

    1. Close diplomatic relations.
    2. Freeze Iranian assets in UK banks.
    3. Begin preparations for blockade.

    Wait for response.

    Ugly? potentially “war-bringing”? Sure it is, and its the Iranians who have brought it. They need to be reminded that in the West, actions have consequences, sometimes bad consequences.

    There is one alternative to this for those of you looking for it. Go ahead, negotiate ith the state of Iran as it performs illegal undiplomatic acts with your personel. Ensure the lives of your folks are kept safe from harm.
    Be “the bigger man” and turn the other cheek.

    You should by now recognize this plan. Jimmy Carter used it in 1979 and we are still paying the price today for his rewarding the Islamic revolution of Iran. Oh how the world might be different had he thought more about the thousands of lives lost since then to islamic terror instead of the 444 lives at risk at that time.

    As I said, actions have consequences.

  2. sergey Says:

    Spare a town to nuke, spoil a nation.

  3. Cappy Says:

    This needed to be resolved in the late 1970′s. Jiminy Carter needs to ride the first nuke to Tehran Slim Pickens style!

  4. Trimegistus Says:

    Iran has nothing to fear. Britain lacks the capacity for a serious strike against Iran, and the Democrats in the U.S. will prevent America from taking action.

    The best course of action right now is to hold funerals for the men and issue cyanide pills to everyone else in harm’s way.

  5. I Do Nothing for Your Pleasure.... « Obi’s Sister Says:

    [...] actions from ancient Dems long-ago haunt us and our allies. Whether you deal with the demons then or now, their purpose is the same. [...]

  6. Travis Says:

    Maybe the British should capture some Iranians and claim they were actually in British waters.

  7. Jimmy J. Says:

    In the Taiwan Straits Crises in 1955 and 1959 the U.S. fleet was being overloaded with instructions from the Pentagon. The high mucky mucks in Washinton D.C. didn’t trust their field commanders to do the right thing.

    On the other hand there were British ships involved in those same crises. When the British on scene commanders asked the Admiralty for instructions, they were brief and to the point, “Protect the Queen’s interests!” They actually trusted their commanders on the scene to know what to do.

    And now this. The British Navy has become another armed force that doesn’t trust the on scene commanders to know what to do. How far they have fallen.

  8. Bob Agard Says:

    Excellent analysis of the most important event now taking place in the world.

  9. harry Says:

    “…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?”

    Now, now, Neo. The term “the enemy” is an out-moded attempt to dehumanize your fellow human being. It is also neo-con-crypto-fascist-nazi-code for brown people.

  10. douglas Says:

    Great post. Great comment, Frank- but I’m not sure it ‘s the right tack. I agree with Neo that the ayatollahs use events like this to rally the people in nationalistic frenzy, putting aside thier issues with their own government (much as the arab world uses the Israel-palestine issue). If that is the case, giving them what they want (strong reaction) might not be the best idea. From where I sit (civilian without access to intelligence reports) I’m not sure which is the better choice right now. I do believe that Frank’s approach should be at the ready, however. All the military power in the world is useless without the will to use it when necessary (except perhaps as parade props). Of course, it’s much easier to employ the wait and see approach, when they are concerned about you possibly employing the hit ‘em hard strategy.

  11. TC Says:

    Whether we are there to be a “force for good” is quite a stretch indeed.

    But I do like the level of insight that recognizes the Iranian plan of taking advantage of American ‘infighting’ – a kind of reverse ‘divide and conquer’.

    Those damn Iranians – who do they think they are?

    Americans?

  12. TC Says:

    “Maybe the British should capture some Iranians and claim they were actually in British waters.”

    Now there’s an idea. Of course the U.S have already done something like that in abducting 5 Iranian diplomats from their embassy in Bagdahd.

    And the British are aiding the U.S inside Iran, if I’m not mistaken, in conducting black ops through terrorist groups(the MEK, formerly on the U.S list of terror groups) – including car bombings and other delights.

    Never is as black and white as we’d like to believe, unfortunately….

  13. OverGourd Says:

    So, the Iranian general officer and other ranking military personnel from the Revolutionary Guards captured in Iraq were a duly constituted “military assistance group” operating out of a duly constituted “consulate”.

    I don’t think so. For this version of the Big Lie to work one would have to believe that UK naval personnel were “rescued” by Iran.

    What is needed is something like Frank’s proposal; a lot less pussyfoot and many more big boots. When actions lead to consequences behavior tends to be modified.

  14. mary Says:

    Now there’s an idea. Of course the U.S have already done something like that in abducting 5 Iranian diplomats from their embassy in Bagdahd.

    And the British are aiding the U.S inside Iran, if I’m not mistaken, in conducting black ops through terrorist groups(the MEK, formerly on the U.S list of terror groups) – including car bombings and other delights.

    You say this like it’s a bad thing…?

    The car bombing targeted Iranian intelligence agents – an it got 11 of them.

    The Iranian regime is not the equivalent of a legitimate government, it’s a standard gangster regime engaged in a mob war.

    We’ve learned from our mistakes in Iraq and we may be using asymetric/gangster tactics against Iran. Apparently these tactics are working. The Iranians know that there’s a threat, they know how weak they are and they’re trying to provoke us into another extended war + occupation or appeasement.

    The best course of action would be to keep applying interenal and external pressure. The Russians are helping the Mullahs, but the Russians also have some common sense – they don’t want Iran to have the bomb either.

    Instead of dealing with the loons and gangsters in Iran, we should have some major (and very public) negotiations with the Russians.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    It almost doesn’t matter what you do, Neo, whether you go with war, limited or total, or Frank’s response, or my response. The thing you need to do is to destroy them psychologically, defeat them in their minds. ANything that does that, is a good thing to do.

    As a small test, take TC here as an example. If you could find something that you could do, to convince him that he’s not able to stop your plans, that is a group of actions that can convince people that resistance is futile. Given the higher mental resistance and fanaticism of Iran… this means that all you have to do is to scale up the intimidation factor.

    If the only thing that will convince TC that he can’t stop us, is to do everything he is against, then that’s what you got to do. For Iran, these things will be on a bigger scale, of course. But in essence, it is the same model. Convincing individuals not to do things. Simple law and threats of lawsuit can reduce certain behaviors in civilized folk, Neo, so for Iran we have to increase the punishment. Because Iran has a higher resistance, they believe that they are going to win and that they have power.

    If someone believes they have power, they will keep fighting for longer, and not give in to your demands.

    In a sense, Iran must be made to feel helpless. A psychological attack.

    Which can consist of the West doing things that Iran never predicted, never prepared itself for, and never expected. Surprise is one of the best ways to attack a person’s mind. It destabilizes a person’s thinking, by making them react to events, instead of planning for them.

    Expectations matter a lot. Things like nuclear attacks, biological attacks, and torture become less effective over time as your targets get used to them. So if you threaten to use them, your threats will be believed, but also the psychological damage is less because people know about them now, and they will have time to prepare. It makes them feel less helpless to know that something is coming in advance and to prepare for it. Expectations in airpower psychological operations was covered in an airpowermaxwell link, given that Britain didn’t crack but Hirohito did.

    In a sense, TC calls the Iranian agents the US grabbed in Iraq, “diplomats” because he expects them to be treated as diplomats. This expectation reveals a weakness that can be exploited, because if you don’t treat them as diplomats, you will hear complaints that have taken days to plan and setup. It takes time to come up with a resistance plan. So don’t let them. Grab the agents, squeeze the info out of them, and then treat them in opposite that of diplomats, and you will provide people with a fait accompli. Which has a slight psychological shock value, given that it is a total surprise.

    Iran won’t believe any threat from the US or Britain. Because Iran is right in their analysis, the probability that Bush or Blair would conduct demonstration nuclear detonations in Iranian air space, or order full scale blockades using unrestricted submarine warfare… is very very low, almost non-existent.

    Even assuming Bush and Blair did a blockade, how long would it take to setup? A month? 3 Months? 5? A month is long enough for a large amount of psychological shock to be absorbed and planned for.

    You have to hit the Mullash hard and fast. You can’t allow them to calm themselves, to get a grip on events. You have to move faster than they. Exceed their ability to cope. Make them panic. Making them panic is a good thing.

  16. sergey Says:

    Mary, I am afraid that not all Russian politicians have any bit of common sense: many obviously have none. Weaponry export is a major activity, very profitable for those who involved, and usually includes huge bribery for private use. And what Russian politician say in public often have nothing in common with their real goals and deeds. They are probably as dishonest and adventurist as Iranian ones, only more cynical.

  17. Chuck Says:

    Tony should do what a father would do if some thug kidnapped their children – secure a safe return and then nail the unholy crap out of them; the latter because there are no international court for handling the situation. The UN? Give me a break.

  18. Some Guy Says:

    You people are clowns. I can only hope that one day you can look back on the garbage you spout now and feel some sense of shame at the ridiculous nonsense you believed, and how little you actually knew about the world.

  19. stumbley Says:

    some guy:

    In what way is Iran justified in kidnaping British sailors? In what way is a discussion of possible approaches to what, in past days, would constitute an act of war on Iran’s part, “garbage”? What dog do you have in this fight?

  20. mary Says:

    Mary, I am afraid that not all Russian politicians have any bit of common sense: many obviously have none. Weaponry export is a major activity, very profitable for those who involved, and usually includes huge bribery for private use. And what Russian politician say in public often have nothing in common with their real goals and deeds. They are probably as dishonest and adventurist as Iranian ones, only more cynical.

    You’re right about that, but we understand Russian politicians. We know how to deal with them.

    It’s a terrible idea to try to fight the Islamists and our old cold war enemies at the same time. We need to divide to conquer, and if we have to be allied with a nasty regime, we should choose one that we understand.

    Currently, we’re allied with an enemy that we don’t understand, Saudi Arabia. If we had to choose between an alliance with the Islamists who sponsored 9/11 and the Russians, we should choose the Russians. Even the appearance of a united front might be enough to improve the general worldwide situation.

  21. sergey Says:

    Mary, appearance of united front with US is the last thing Moscow politicians are ready to admit. The whole idea of internal politics in today Russia is based on what I would call “phoney cold war”, that is arrogant, sometimes aggressive empty rhetoric toward the West and especially toward US. In reality, though, the same polititians are much more ready to compromiss and even to cooperation with US than they demonstrate in public. And they are afraid of islamists very much, and for good reason.

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    It doesn’t matter what the idea is, when the other side doesn’t want to play ball.

    People act like its an easy choice, dump Saudi Arabia, get an automatic upgrade. It isn’t like that.

  23. harry Says:

    TC:
    “Now there’s an idea. Of course the U.S have already done something like that in abducting 5 Iranian diplomats from their embassy in Bagdahd.

    You gotta love the left’s instant and automatic assumption that if the Iranians call themselves diplomats, they are, and any US military action, an arrogant, thuggish, blatant disregard for international law.

    Quick, somebody call the UN. They’ll put a stop to this!

  24. Tatterdemalian Says:

    TC is really arguing that people who invade a foreign nation using false documents are actually “diplomats” and any building they’re launching attacks on that nation’s troops from a “consulate,” regardless of whether the hosting nation declares it one?

    Even we neocons don’t go that far in justifying the invasion of Iraq. Then the left wonders why people trust Fox News more than them these days.

  25. Sally Says:

    SG: I can only hope that one day you can look back on the garbage you spout now and feel some sense of shame at the ridiculous nonsense you believed, and how little you actually knew about the world.

    Unsolicited advice: try reciting that while looking into a mirror.

  26. TC Says:

    Yeah mary – the Bush administration is seen by a majority of the country(I’d wager) as an illegimate regime too – but I don’t think the same majority would think car bombing top republican leaders would go over too well.

    Maybe Tom Delay.

    Oh he’s ‘retired’.

    Any of the one’s who aren’t in jail or ‘retired’, then…

  27. TC Says:

    “You gotta love the left’s instant and automatic assumption that if the Iranians call themselves diplomats, they are, and any US military action, an arrogant, thuggish, blatant disregard for international law.”

    Or the right’s instant and automatic assumption than if we say anything it must be true too.

    Oh right, nobody believes that anymore……

  28. TC Says:

    Tatter (insert hysterical laugh track here).

    Oh boy – that’s good, brother.

    Your still mired in 2002 I see.

    Well good for you….

  29. mary Says:

    Yeah mary – the Bush administration is seen by a majority of the country(I’d wager) as an illegimate regime too – but I don’t think the same majority would think car bombing top republican leaders would go over too well.

    Congratulations, TC, that’s the most twisted reasoning I’ve seen so far on the net.

    We should fight asymetric warfare asymetrically – well, if we want to win, that is. You don’t want us to win, so your reasoning, twisted or not, is irrelevant.

  30. mary Says:

    The whole idea of internal politics in today Russia is based on what I would call “phoney cold war”, that is arrogant, sometimes aggressive empty rhetoric toward the West and especially toward US.

    US policy is also based on the same phoney cold war concept. I don’t know why both sides are still clinging to their old cold war ideas. Probably because it’s what they’ve done for decades – habit..

  31. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    I find myself at a loss to understand the British Admiral. His job is to fight… unless he has diplomatic credentials I’m unaware of. What on Earth happened here?

    I’m reminded — by contrast — of the time that Teddy Roosevelt responded to an American kidnapped overseas with the demand that the American be returned, alive — or the kidnapper, dead.

    I don’t think that would work here. Terrorists, by definition, do not respect human life, including their own side; making threats against Iranians, diplomats or not, are not likely to get much of a response. (Not from the Iranians, that is. The West’s news media would certainly have something to say about it.)

    Instead, I’d suggest that Britain plan to hit ‘em where it hurts. I’d like to see Mr. Blair announce that Iran had 48 hours to deliver the 15 British sailors, alive and unharmed, to them — after which, for each day that passed, another Iranian oil field would be put to the torch, until the sailors returned. Let him say it publicly — and warn Iranians to stay away from the oil fields.

    I can think of several reasons why we probably won’t see this. But I sure would like to be proven wrong.

    respectfully,
    Daniel in Brookline

  32. TC Says:

    “Congratulations, TC, that’s the most twisted reasoning I’ve seen so far on the net.

    We should fight asymetric warfare asymetrically – well, if we want to win, that is. You don’t want us to win, so your reasoning, twisted or not, is irrelevant.”

    Funny – I think you display the most twisted ‘logic’ imaginable if you think we should be at war with Iran.

    There’s really no reason for that at all(certainly isn’t in our interests or the world in general) – except that certain influential Jewish Americans think we should. And of course those who think we should destroy anyone just because we can.

    Long on the propaganda and lies – short on the truth and justice – which is what concerns me more than ‘winning’.

    What would we be winning exactly?

  33. Lee Says:

    Still have your nazi foot in your mouth, TC? How typical. It always comes back to the “joooos” with you, doesn’t it? Now, I understand why you want Iran or someone else to destroy Israel, after all, Israel has existed and continues to exist for close to 59 years now, while the Third Reich barely held on for 12. It just sticks in your nazi craw, doesn’t it, TC?

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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