The topic of discussion today is Iran. Please set your watches back 1,000 years.
Just when you think people and governments in the Middle East can't get any stupider, another candidate surges to the front with a strong showing. The new front runner is Iran, which - already under fire from virtually every corner of the world because of its intransigence over its nuclear program - has now brazenly kidnapped fifteen British sailors and marines and paraded them on state television in a disgusting show strongly reminiscent of the shameful treatment of American hostages after the fall of the shah in 1979. And not only have they violated every norm of civilized international law by taking the hostages in the first place, they go on to complain (with straight faces) that negative international reactions to their ploy are the reason they won't release their hostages. And, of course, it didn't take long for the rent-a-crowds to show up in the streets of Teheran to chant threats of death-to-whoever-our-ayatollahs-are-mad-at-today. The gentleman in the photo below demonstrates the typically helpful Iranian approach to resolving the incident.
If you've followed the modern history of Iran as I have, you can recognize the touchy mix of strident nationalism and religious fervor that has turned a once great nation into a dangerous joke. For a good depiction of what the British hostages are probably enduring, read Mark Bowden's superb book Guests of the Ayatollah, the story of the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran by Iranian radicals and the subsequent arbitrary and brutal treatment of the Americans held hostage. I think it's not surprising that the Iranians chose to seize British personnel, rather than Americans...knowing that the British were far more likely to respond diplomatically than the Americans, whose rules of engagement (and memories of Iranian hospitality toward hostages) would probably have resulted in the complete destruction of the Iranian attackers.
It's hard to deal with a headstrong and intransigent nation like Iran. The mixture of religion and nationalism, combined with the unpredictability of the ultra-radical Revolutionary Guards (who seem to have been responsible for the seizure of the British personnel) makes for a very difficult political situation. The situation is eerily similar to the incident in March 2001 in which a Chinese fighter harassing an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft over international waters accidentally rammed the American plane, which made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in China. The Chinese pilot was killed, and the incident resulted in an extended diplomatic dance in which China insisted on a US apology for the accident (which was clearly the result of the Chinese pilot's unsafe tactics) before releasing the aircraft and crew. The US finally made a statement expressing regret for the death of the Chinese pilot, which was deemed face-saving enough for the Chinese to unpaint themselves from their diplomatic corner.
One hopes the Iranians will realize that their actions are not helping their international image and standing, and will release the captured British sailors and marines soon. Unfortunately, the prickly and strident Iranians don't appear likely to respond that way. I fear that the unfortunate British captives will be unwilling guests - and diplomatic pawns - of the ayatollahs for some time.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.