Exactly who in Iran ordered the hijacking of the 15 British sailors and marines will almost certainly never be known. Nor will the motivation be explained. Perhaps the regime is taking more and more serious steps towards a deliberate showdown with the West, and perhaps a mistake was made. The regime was unable to resist making propaganda out of it, putting Faye Turney, the woman captive and one of the sailors on television, and dictating their letters and speeches, sometimes in an idiom that only a foreigner would consider English.
At any rate, a stage has been reached when Iran expects Britain to apologize for wrongdoing that it did not commit, and Britain expects Iran to apologize for undoubted wrongdoing. Neither party can fulfil these expectations. The confrontation therefore turns from the political sphere to the cultural. Enlarging the issue by taking it to international forums, Britain is pointing out to the world that Iran’s behavior is barbaric and it should be ashamed of itself. In the scheme of values that pertain in Iran, shame is the unacceptable opposite of honor, and nothing less than a challenge to manhood and a proper life. Whoever accuses another of being shameful is immediately accused in turn of being arrogant. And so it is now, as the leaders of the Iranian regime speak about Britain’s arrogance, its meddling, and its impotence as a partner of the United States. They stage demonstrators demanding the execution for British “aggressors,” in full awareness that they themselves are the aggressors.
The only ways out of this impasse are the exercise of immense ingenuity to devise a formula that saves the face of all concerned, or unarguable force. Caught in exactly this same predicament over Iran’s nuclear program, the powers are equally uncertain how to play their hand. Shame and honour values are conducive to irrational emotion. The 15 now in prison are likely to have to endure a long and agonizing ordeal.