It is certainly a relief that the Iranian regime has decided to release the 15 British sailors and marines who were seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces March 23.
It would have been preferable if the regime had immediately released the British servicepeople, who, if they ventured into Iranian waters, almost certainly did so inadvertently. But this outcome is preferable to what would have been increasing pressure for Britain, or perhaps even the United States, to put more pressure on the Iranian regime through military and paramilitary means.
The entire incident, however, leaves us with more questions than answers.
What was the motivation for Iranian forces to seize the British sailors and marines in the first place? Does the resolution of the incident suggest a split within the Iranian regime, between hard-liners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and pragmatists, led by Ali Larijani, head of the Supreme National Security Council and representing the interests of most of the mullahs? Or are any splits merely superficial?
Britain’s Sky News said its sources revealed that Qatar and Syria were instrumental in bringing about a resolution. What interest would those two countries have in common, and what leverage, if any, would they have over Iran? Could Saudi Arabia, which has been increasingly active diplomatically in the region, have played a role?
Unfortunately, for all his sometimes unpredictable and inflammatory hard-line tendencies, and whether or not he was pressured into releasing the hostages, Ahmadinejad played the resolution of this crisis shrewdly and expansively. He referred to the release as a “gift” to the British people while insisting that Iran had been deeply wronged by an incursion into territorial waters.
As Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at the RAND Corp. and former U.S. ambassador to NATO said, whatever the truth of the matter, “he made Iran sound like the civilized party in this affair.”
Hunter believes that Great Britain played things just about right, consistently denying it had done anything wrong, refusing in public to negotiate, exercising patience rather than hurling threats, and (probably) arranging for the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been captured in Iraq.
As Hunter also suggested, now is a good time to step back and think seriously about our priorities in the region.
The United States is likely to be a permanent presence in the Persian Gulf, and Iran will inevitably be a regional power. We need to start talking to determine how those interests, some of which will coincide and some of which will conflict, can be worked through without warfare or nuclear weapons.