The release of the 15 British sailors and marines is naturally a relief. They were held for less than two weeks, they were not put on trial, and seemingly subjected only to psychological pressure. But now is the time for recriminations. By means of breaking international law and disregarding civilized behavior, Iran has won a famous victory. It is monstrous that President Ahmadinejad could say at his press conference that freedom for the 15 “is a gift to the British people.” Held through an act of piracy, they were not to be gifted away in a cheap gesture to close down illegal action. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador at the U.N. draws the alarming conclusion that Iran has conducted “a low-cost way of testing British resolve.” Ahmadinejad can now ratchet up the nuclear program without fear of a strong response.
Britain has indeed suffered a significant defeat. Nobody yet knows what pressures and threats the captives were forced to submit to, and these may well have been cunningly applied to undermine their resolution. But the spectacle of the 15 ritually pleading that they were nicely treated and not harmed has resonated throughout the Muslim world. Prisoners of war are required only to state their military number, name and rank. In public, a British officer instead said ingratiatingly that he understood why Iranians were insulted by apparent intrusion into their waters. Another of the fifteen told Ahmadinejad, “We are very grateful for your forgiveness.” Only two or three among them seem to have kept their dignity, and refrained either from apologizing for themselves or thanking the Iranians for putting them through this ordeal. Immediately confronted with television cameras, their families at home unanimously praised Iran as though they really meant it. Nobody had the resolve even to say that they would reserve comment until the fifteen were home. Such reserve would at least have shown some condemnation of Iranian illegalities. Needless to say, the BBC particularly rejoiced in flourishing the general psychological cravenness and moral collapse.
Behind the scenes, diplomatic letters were exchanged between Prime Minister Blair’s foreign-policy adviser, and Ali Larijani, a hardliner who negotiates the nuclear issue. Whether some kind of deal has been struck remains unknown. There is speculation that Iranian officers held in Iraq may be part of a bargain, and if that proves to be the case, Iran will find confirmation for its view that the balance of power in the world is now in its favor. In the first place, though, Iran evidently let the 15 go because it had milked the hijacking for all its worth, and nothing more was to be gained. The British navy had been exposed as operationally unprofessional. Its ships and helicopters and radars were taken by surprise. In no position to defend themselves, its sailors and marines went meekly into captivity. In its predicament, the British government was helpless, turning for support to the European Union and the United Nations, which both limited themselves to verbiage, watered down at that. The whole West can expect to pay a high cost for such open weakness and humiliation at this juncture of the war on terror.