April 9, 2007


Iran v. Britain: Who Blinked? (Francis Fukuyama, 4/08/07, American Interest)

While commentators like Charles Krauthammer and John Bolton have charged that Britain capitulated to Iran and handed them a humiliating victory in obtaining the release of the 15 British Marines last week (when has Krauthammer ever not cried “Munich!” in response to an act of diplomacy?), it would appear that something more like the opposite is actually the case. But to understand why this is so, we have to look at the larger picture of internal Iranian politics against which the crisis played out.

Our Iranian problem is actually a problem with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, or in Persian Pasdaran) and allied institutions like the Basij militia. These are the “power” agencies that serve as the political base for the conservatives inside Iran. In return for its support, political leaders like ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have allowed the IRGC to grow into a semi-autonomous state-within-a-state. Today it is a large and sprawling enterprise, that controls its own intelligence agency, manufacturing base, and import-export companies, much like the Russian FSB or the Chinese military. Since coming to power, the current Ahmedinejad regime has awarded IRGC-affiliated companies billions in no-bid contracts, increasing the already great perception among the Iranian public of its corruption. [...]

Clearly, whoever was responsible for the decision to take the British Marines prisoner was hoping rekindle some of the fervor of the 1979 revolution, and use that to force the rest of the leadership into a confrontation with Britain and America. Hence the televised “confessions” that hearkened back to the taking of hostages in the American Embassy (the “nest of spies”), and the rallies against foreign embassies. But the gambit didn’t work, and there was clearly a behind-the-scenes power struggle between different parts of the regime. Ahmedinejad was supposed to give a major speech to a huge rally in Teheran, which he cancelled at the last moment, and when he did speak, it was to announce that the captives would soon be released. The IRGC prisoners in Iraq were released, but Britain did not apologize or admit wrong-doing in return. So it would appear that it was the Iranians who blinked first, before the incident could spiral into a genuine 1979-style hostage crisis.

He's still a tad sketchy on Khamenei, but as close as either Neocons or Realists get to accurate.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 9, 2007 3:12 PM

I'm surprised anyone takes Mr Fukuyama seriously. Check that. Nothing surprises me.

Posted by: at April 9, 2007 3:58 PM

Fukuyama, like Kennan before him, is experiencing a crisis of confidence as he watches his ideas tested militarily. But he'll get over it when the war winds down.

In the meantime, he's one of the few cogent writers on the scene even when wrong.

Posted by: oj at April 9, 2007 7:07 PM