The Iran-Britain standoff looks to be over with Iran’s announcement that it will send the 15 captive Britons home. And it’s not surprising that Tehran is claiming victory: It has used the incident to sound a warning to the U.S. and its allies that Tehran will retaliate if the U.S. persists in its provocative program of seizing Iranian officials in Iraq, then let it cool before it could escalate into something more dangerous. And despite the insistence that there was no quid-pro-quo, it’s hard to avoid the impression that some form of prisoner swap is the basis for resolving the stand-off. Not only was one Iranian captive held by U.S.-linked forces in Iraq released on Monday; it now appears that Iran is finally to be given consular access to five officials held incommunicado by the U.S. since they were snatched in January. To be sure, the government of Iraq said this week it was lobbying intensively for the U.S. to free five Iranians because their release, in the words of Iraq’s foreign ministry, “will be a factor that will help in the release of the British sailors and marines.” Indeed.
Patrick Coburn reported yesterday that the context of Iran’s capture of the Brits is the U.S. attempt to seize two senior Iranian military officials in that raid in Erbil. As Paul Woodward notes, these actions by the U.S. — which may also include the case of a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard official who recently disappeared in Turkey (Western officials off the record say he defected; the Iranians say he was kidnapped) — are a coherent campaign designed to put pressure on Iran by targetting top officials. This policy of kidnapping is even applauded by Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, who writes that the fact that the U.S. “apprehended five Iranians” in Erbil is one of the clever ways in which the U.S. is putting pressure on Iran without actually resorting to force. Zakaria is usually a sober and thoughtful commentator, which is why that casual endorsement of kidnapping is so outrageous — not simply legally, but more importantly, because you have to wonder at the sobriety of anyone who advocates winding up the Iranians by seizing hostages!
Elsewhere, of course, sobriety appears to prevail in sufficient quantities to reinforce my suspicion that a U.S.-Iran war remains unlikely. When the chips are down, it seems, Iran’s pragmatic national security adviser Ali Larijani appears to have more sway over the decision making than does the more hot-headed President Ahmedinajad. Larijani is a tough-minded nationalist who will aggressively assert and defend Iran’s interest, but he also knows very clearly when to step back from the brink and find compromises and accomodations to avoid confrontation. Once Iran had sent the message that it could make the U.S. and its allies pay a heavy price for the covert war they’re waging, there was nothing to be gained from escalating the crisis. Besides, Iran came out ahead — Iraq came out more forcefully against the U.S. snatching Iranian personnel on its soil, and its hard to imagine that Britain will support such actions. Indeed, Britain’s handling of the crisis, to the irritation of the Bush Administration hawks, underscored the principle that diplomacy remains the only game in town.
Indeed, the crisis and its resolution has highlighted the growing isolation of the Bush Administration in shaping events in the Middle East. President Bush was relegated to grumbling on the sidelines about the “inexcusable” Iranian action, and warning that there would be no, uh, quid-pro-quo. London’s response showed no appetite for confrontation. And while Syria and Turkey weighed in to help Britain coax Iran into a deal, Iraq directed its efforts at Washington, pressing for the release of Iranians captured on its soil — and, presumably, making clear that it won’t sanction the U.S. seizing Iranian personnel in Iraqi territory. (Not that the U.S. will necessarily refrain, but it removes the fig leaf of claiming that these activities are designed to protect Iraq.) Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi has defied Bush and gone off to chat with Damascus, and her Senate counterpart, Harry Reid, is warning Bush that there’ll be no money for an open-ended war in Iraq.
Of course, the U.S. will look to escalate pressure on Iran in the hope of getting it to back down on uranium enrichment. But events of the past two weeks may have underscored that the other key stakeholders (on both sides) see diplomacy — and quid-pro-quo — as the way to go.