April 23, 2007


Balance of Power (Dennis Ross, 04.23.07, New Republic)

Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors dominated international headlines and attention for nearly two weeks. Many wondered whether it would become a long, drawn-out affair like the American hostage crisis in 1980. Others feared that it might lead to an escalation, not just of tension with Iran, but of incidents across Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

From the outset, I saw it as an event that would offer us a window to watch the balance of forces in the Iranian leadership. [...]

Since, with any act of statecraft, it is essential to understand reality as it is, knowing whether the IRGC and its standard bearer, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hold the upper hand in Iran will tell us a lot about whether we can dissuade the Iranians from going nuclear--and if so, how best to do it. While some observers like John Bolton declared that, in the crisis, Ahmadinejad "scored a political victory, both in Iran and internationally," the facts suggest just the opposite.

First, note that the Iranian press did not even mention the crisis for several days after the British sailors were seized: This was hardly a case in which the regime was trying to whip the public into a frenzy. On the contrary, it seemed to downplay the issue. Second, after the release of the sailors, Ahmadinejad was roundly criticized in many Iranian newspapers, with several articles making the point that the crisis cost Iran greatly without any corresponding benefit. Third, Admadinejad himself acknowledged that the British made no concessions when he said that they weren't big enough to admit mistake; and an article in the Iranian newspaper Aftab e Yazd even suggested that the Iranians were coerced into letting the sailors go: "If we wanted, as the president says, to pardon them while we had the authority to try them, why did we not release them before Blair's ultimatum or three days after it?"

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Ahmadinejad was a loser in the crisis, and that other Iranian leaders decided they needed to cut their losses. Interestingly, I know from speaking to British officials that they were surprised when Ahmadinejad announced the release of the sailors in his press conference. They had expected that there were going to be more quiet talks with the Iranians, in part to work out the details of the release and in part to discuss, without any British apology, how to minimize the possibility of avoiding future such problems. This was how they expected the Iranians to climb down.

And, yet, the Iranians ended the crisis unilaterally. Bear in mind that, early in the crisis, unnamed Iranians were quoted insisting that there must be a British apology and that the British sailors would be tried. They proved to be wrong. Ali Larijani, secretary of the Supreme Council on National Security, later told a British interviewer that there would be no trial and that the issue needed to be resolved peacefully; he proved to be right.

Larijani is known to be close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While Khamenei made no public comments during the crisis, he is the only one empowered by the Iranian constitution to pardon detainees. Again, according to the British officials I spoke with, they believe that Khamenei ordered the sailors released but allowed Ahmadinejad to do it--giving him a platform to weave his own public story and to bestow medals upon the IRGC soldiers who seized the sailors. Even then, Ahmadinejad wasn't spared public criticism in Iran. (For an overview of the criticism he sustained, read Mehdi Khalaji's April paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.)

The arc of the "crisis" was entirely predictable, but not by most of the folks paid to make predictions about Iran.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2007 2:47 PM



Freudian slip?

Posted by: obc at April 23, 2007 4:37 PM