Iran showed great skill in foreign relations the past few weeks when they held 15 British sailors and marines prisoner in the country. Significant evidence points to the fact that the British ship was in Iraqi territorial waters when it was seized and that it was the Iranians who violated international law. The lack of consequences for Iran allowed their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to emerge as the victor in the clash.
The Iranian government showed footage of the British servicemen and one servicewoman living fairly comfortably in captivity and declaring their guilt in violating Iranian territorial waters. They were paraded constantly on television as puppets in a play Ahmadinejad was putting on for his own domestic constituency. This political theater climaxed when Ahmadinejad declared that the captives would be released as an example of Iranian goodwill for Easter. Ahmadinejad even met with the captives, speaking to them through a translator and asking them how they enjoyed their “vacation” in Iran.
Britain was humiliated by Iran as it fumbled in responding to this crisis. Knowing the gravity of the situation but unwilling to initiate hostilities against Iran, Britain correctly took a tough diplomatic stance to return its soldiers. Indeed, the network of other Western democracies is a significant diplomatic asset in negotiations with states like Iran. By speaking as powerful block, more pressure, in economic or political forms, can be brought to bear against Iran to isolate and punish it for violating international law. Unfortunately, Britain’s allies responded weakly. Efforts in to obtain a tough U.N. resolution failed and Britain looked weak.
This strengthens Iran’s hand in the ongoing negotiations over their nuclear program. They have proven here that they can violate international law with impunity from the west and United Nations, only making their chances of success with violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty more likely. Also, the domestic benefits of the hostage crisis have helped bolster Ahmadinejad’s support. Many are worried that Ahmadinejad’s insistence on the nuclear program will only isolate Iran further and bring economic ruin. Many criticized Ahmadinejad for his hardline stance on the nuclear program.
Now, by engineering this hostage crisis, Ahmadinejad has harnassed a rally around the flag mentality, distracting the public with ideas of a powerful external enemy – the West. As Thomas Friedman stated, Iran shares much in common with the United States and could easily become fast friends. Ahmadinejad’s political theater crushes any improvement in relations and trust. This will necessitate a firm stance and a willingness to back it up with real consequences.