I’ve been struggling to figure out what just happened with the detainment and now release of 15 British troops taken in Iraqi waters by Iranian military forces. What did all of this mean? Who are the winners and losers?
There’s a ton of thoughtful analysis out there — so I’m not going to try and capture all that here. I do think that this piece, “What the End of the Hostage Crisis Means for the World” by Angus McDowall and Anne Penketh is superb in the roster of key questions posed.
There are a number or Iran’s political elites who occasionally read this blog — so let me offer a message that I hope is taken seriously. Iran’s recent erratic behavior is undermining its interests and leading many to believe that the state is too fragmented to deal with.
Six months ago, there were many in the world who took Iran’s stated claims of a fervent desire for domestic nuclear energy for civilian and peaceful purposes seriously. After all, the U.S. has been chanting “regime change” for many years and has been part of the DNA of other regime change realities in Iran’s past. Paranoia is understandable.
But the fact is that there were many who believed that at some key level Iran was a rational regional player wanting more influence in the Middle East and respect globally. Iran was “winning” a public relations game with the U.S. then — and had nearly divided America from two other key global powers, China and Russia, over what to do about Iran.
Realists — even those who didn’t buy Iran’s peaceful nuclear use arguments — also believed that there was room to negotiate and work to establish a new equilibrium of interests between the US, Iran, Europe, and other key stakeholders in the region and world.
But all of this depended on an effort to start some ‘confidence building process’. That had a chance of happening in the regional meeting that took place in Baghdad in March. Both the US and Iran participated. So did Syria.
And while Iran has not liked the uniform pressure that is being directed at it through the UN Security Council, there is no avoiding the unanimity of the recent Security Council vote against Iran’s current position on nuclear enrichment.
Thus, Iran has moved from being ‘perceived’ by some as having had the moral high ground against a convulsive and unpredictable U.S. — now the tables have turned.
Iran now looks unpredictable, dangerous (though some will correctly argue that Iran has always been dangerous), and irrational. To be trusted by the world with nuclear enrichment capacity of any kind, rationality, trust, and dependable and predictable behavior must be part of the equation.
The detainment of these soldiers was odd — because it violated every single principle of trust-building and has resulted in building further skepticism of Iran’s real intentions.
I’m of the school — though only speculating — that the Supreme Leader did not authorize the capture of the British military unit. But there are others who tell me that there is no way that such an action would take place without the Supreme Leader’s full support and approval. At this point, many tell me we will never know whether there was a gap or not between Iran’s chief Ayatollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that took this action.
If a gap were acknowledged, such information could destabilize Iran on many levels. I think that there was a gap. The more I learn about Iran’s power structures and political contours, the more I believe that the arrest of the British soldiers was designed to warn the Supreme Leader Khamenei and other political nodes in Iran that the Revolutionary Guard cannot be pushed, constrained, mismanaged, embarrassed, or forced to accept an acquiescent position on its own nuclear pretensions.
I think that the Revolutionary Guard took action first to warn other parts of Iran’s political order that it could provoke war whenever it wanted. I think too that the Revolutionary Guard was probably not instructed by Khamenei to conduct the arrest of these soldiers — though I respect those who see this differently. It’s simply too irrational a move for the Supreme Leader to have taken.
And ironically, as this excellent piece, “Jihadists on the US-Iran Standoff,” by Daniel Kimmage explores, Iran’s release of the British soldiers may only further an already evident distance between the regime and the revolutionary and radical jihadist force active in the region.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard gambled, in my view, in its arrest of the Brits and may have won despite Iran as a state losing. Iran lost by convincing even its friends that it is a state that may not be in control of all it’s own pieces, particularly a vital part of its military force. It also lost by putting itself in a position where jihadists view the Iranian leadership as appeasers of British and American power in the region.
But the IRG has everyone on edge, fearful of what it could trigger. And while the Guard has significant business interests in, around, and beyond Iraq — and war would be detrimental to its income — in a domestic political context, the more likely war is — accidental or purposeful — the stronger the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s hand inside Iraq becomes.
— Steve Clemons