Carter’s resolve not to do anything sent a clear message to Iran: It’s party time with American prestige and power in the world. The 53 hostages came home alive, and thousands of people have died since as a direct result of Iran’s boldness and deceit, including hundreds of Americans murdered in cold blood. Iran did not get the Shah, the original object of the hostage seizure, but it got the gift that just keeps giving. The knowledge it can flaunt international law and push around opponents well over its weight. It has been spreading terrorism throughout the Middle East ever since, sparking and fanning the flames of war.
Iran has fallen back on a tried-and-true tactic with the seizure of 15 Royal Navy sailor and Royal Marines who were engaged in security operations in Iraqi waters. There has been some debate about whether this was planned out, at what level, and what the precise objective of this action might be. As the British remain in Iranian custody, under threat of trial for espionage, none of that matters. The opportunity Iran has seized is clear enough. Iran is trying to throw its opponents off balance at a critical moment both in the insurgency in Iraq and in the nuclear debate in the United Nations. Iran is trying to divide and conquer, peeling the British away from the United States. Iran is also engaged in measured brinksmanship, gambling that it can bring about a humiliation in advance of any military action, heightening the western public’s fears and wearing down will for a confrontation. Iran has cleverly recognized that by seizing Brits instead of Americans, it greatly reduces the likelihood of an American response.
Tony Blair said yesterday, “I would hope that this is resolved in the next few days. The quicker it is resolved, the easier it will be for all of us.” Hopefully this is the “speaking softly” part of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous line, for public consumption. The Iranians do not appear to be particularly intimidated.
Typically in the past, in cases such as the Chinese detention of American naval aviators forced down in a collision with a Chinese fighter in 2000, and the seizure of British soldiers by Iran in 2004, the aggrieved party puts up with some public humiliation and plays it low key in order to get its people back alive.
The case here is different. The extent of Iranian interference in Iraq has become clear since 2004. The state of cold war that has existed between the United States and Iran since 1979 has turned into a hot proxy war as Iran floods weapons and cash into Iraq, training terrorists to fight there and even sending its own special forces in to support militias and insurgents. It is on the verge of turning into a direct military confrontation, though arguably with this act against an American ally and other acts against Americans, it already has. Iran is a party to the intentional murder of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. There is also evidence that Iran is heavily involved in southern Iraq, and may well be responsible for the murder of British soldiers there. The British are our allies in this fight. The seizure of Britons is no different than a seizure of Americans. The Iranians have chosen to pick on them as the weaker party, calculating that Blair as a lame duck, with anti-war sentiment high, will do nothing. Iran calculates that new British leadership will want less to do with the United States in Iraq and may be more willing to deal on terms favorable to Iran. Iran’s timing is impeccable.