Politics & Policy

Tehran Seizure

Did Iran miscalculate?

Editor’s note: In light of Iran’s taking 15 British soldiers to Iran National Review Online asked a group of experts: Is this an act of war? What can be done? What can be done about Iran generally? What can the U.S. do?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

“Demonstrating to Tehran that adventurism will come at a cost will provide our diplomats with the leverage they need to force Iran to negotiate and make concessions.” So wrote Congressman Jim Saxton (R., N.J.) for The National Interest this past January.

It is sound strategic advice. But it runs up against one of Sun Tzu’s classic maxims: “Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy” — the approach Tony Blair and his government appear to have adopted, at least for now.

So much of the Iran debate — and even over the present crisis — seems to be a series of Tevye-the-milkman style “on the one hand, on the other hand” discussions. Even NRO contributors can’t agree. David Pryce-Jones says the British were inspecting an Iraqi cargo vessel and that “British sailors carrying out such a duty are no concern of Iran’s.” Mario Loyola, in turn, wonders whether the Iranians were responding “to a carefully planned provocation of our own.”

What much of discussion on Iran is avoiding is the reality that there is no cost-free solution. No magic airstrike, no deus ex machine covert operation, no “grand bargain,” no display of Security Council unanimity over anemic sanctions, is going to result in an Iran that gives up its nuclear program, ends support for terrorism, stops its pursuit of regional hegemony and creates conditions for the disappearance of the Islamic Republic — and none of the options now on the table can guarantee that there won’t be profound negative consequences for U.S. interests. So let’s stop the posturing and get down to business of telling both our policymakers as well as the American people in general that Iran policy is going to be about deciding what the least bad option is — and let’s have no more illusions about that.

Fifteen Britons sitting in detention in Tehran should make this abundantly clear.

– Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.

Walid Phares

The Iranian abduction of 15 British soldiers in the Shatt al Arab area was intended to trigger a regional crisis. Iran’s strategic objectives are clear: First, to precipitate a British action ending in a projected political disaster. Second, to get Britain out of Iraq, thus isolating the U.S. in the region. Coupled with U.S. domestic pressures, Iran intends this event to trigger a swift U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The looming economic sanctions, the capture of Iranian agents in Iraq, defections, and internal discontent with Ahmedinejad moved the mullahs make this bold move in their game of chess with the U.S., the U.K, and their regional allies; but it is only their latest move in the ongoing war they are waging.

In response, a multidimensional campaign should be launched, systematically yet gradually, instead of a single retaliation. Along with vigorous diplomatic pressures, the Coalition should formally condemn the regime and call for its isolation. It must create an unbalance of power with Iran via regional deployment while extending an emergency program of support to democracy forces within Iran, including a serious opposition broadcast.

Walid Phares is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Michael Rubin

The Iranian government’s decision to take 15 British marines hostage is an act of war. The decision was both deliberate and central. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is not a rogue element. The regime created it to conducts the operations which the leading clerics did not trust the army to execute.

That Iranian decision makers took such a step is not the result of too little diplomacy, but rather too much. Since Germany launched its critical dialogue with Iran in 1992, European countries have showered the Islamic Republic with apologies and incentives to compromise. Rather than abandon terrorism as a tool of state or reconsider its clandestine nuclear program, the Iranian government has redoubled its efforts to defy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s May 31, 2006 offer to engage Tehran resulted not in a suspension of uranium enrichment, but rather public gloating by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei about U.S. weakness. Nor did the British “softly-softly” approach toward Tehran or its proxies in Basra bring peace in our time. Rather, it convinced the Revolutionary Guards that the British were targets of least resistance.

While Western diplomats seek an elusive formula of concessions and incentives, the fact remains that the Iranian regime has yet to offer a single confidence-building measure. Freelance proposals by Swiss diplomats are no substitute.

The Iranian decision to take hostages is in part an outgrowth of the moral equivalency of Western diplomats and intellectuals. The Iranian government will try to construct a linkage with Iranian operatives detained by U.S. forces in Baghdad and Erbil. Such a claim is risible. The Iranian government — which has yet to apologize for its seizure of U.S. hostages in 1979 — did not grant the detained Qods Force operatives diplomatic credentials until after their arrest. None appeared on Iraqi diplomatic lists. But, in a world where U.S. and British diplomats apologize for slights real and imagined, and professors see their role to advocate for their countries of study rather than pursuit of dispassionate knowledge, Tehran counts on the fact that Western intellectuals will rationalize the most irresponsible and illegal behaviors.

Tehran has grown accustomed to expect reward for non-compliance. It is time U.S. officials if not their European counterparts recognize failure. Ratcheting up pressure only enables Iranian officials to adjust. True leverage requires comprehensive sanctions which can be lifted in response to changes in Tehran’s behavior. The West should abandon the illusion that factionalism within the Iranian government matters. The Office of the Supreme Leader has exercised remarkable control and coordination over its security apparatus. Presidents, whether pragmatic, reformist, or hardline, may differ in style, but have all operated toward the same goals. The White House should not differentiate between officials, power structures, and proxies and should hold the Iranian government accountable for all its actions.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave, 2005).

Saul Singer

Iran’s kidnapping of British soldiers from Iraqi waters is reminiscent of Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, and of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. This is a regime that does not recognize basic notions of sovereignty and the rules of the game between nation states. Yes, it is an act of war, but this too, to the mullahs, is just another Western nicety to be ignored.

Iran is convinced that the more it plays hardball and breaks rules, the more the West will be intimidated and the safer the regime will be. The West must show this calculation is mistaken by raising the costs of Iranian behavior higher and faster, thereby deterring further Iranian escalation.

A U.N. investigation of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other groups should be launched immediately, now that the latest sanctions resolution has banned all Iranian arms exports. This would be modeled on the U.N. investigation into Syria’s role in the Rafik Hariri assassination.

Another key sanction to pursue is a cutoff of Iranian refined oil imports. But Britain must also find ways to punish Iran directly for this kidnapping, not necessarily through overt measures.

–Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post.

Henry Sokolski

Once again, Tehran is testing the waters to see just how far it can violate international law, this time by seizing 15 British sailors conducting anti-smuggling patrols in Iraqi territorial waters. The timing of this stunt — on the eve of unanimous passage of yet another United Nations Security Council Iran nuclear-sanctions resolution — suggests that it may have been an attempt to distract or a clumsy effort to intimidate. This much, however, is clear: Supporters of the U.N. and international law must now not only demand that Tehran return the sailors, but comply with the U.N.’s demand to stop exporting arms and making nuclear fuel (an activity that could bring Iran within days of acquiring a bomb). To help assure this result, states should also heed U.S. appeals against lending trade credits to Tehran, investing in its energy sector, or supporting its nuclear and long-range missile programs. Finally, states offering Tehran incentives (including the U.S.) need to insist that before Iran takes advantage of any such offers, it must first dismantle its nuclear fuel-making plants and allow the IAEA to conduct exhaustive wide-area surveillance to make sure Iran is entirely out of the bomb-making business. To attempt anything less only risks emboldening Iran even further.

– Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

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