Thursday, April 12, 2007


In the week or so since the end of the Persian hostage crisis, some commentators have attempted, erroneously in my opinion, as I made quite clear on the day that the crisis ended, to make out that it was Great Britain, rather than the Persian regime who had to stage a 'climb down', in order to end the crisis. Notwithstanding the fact that except for some temporary regional popularity, and rather primitive propaganda, Persia was unable to secure any concrete benefits to the crisis, there is a school of thought that says that by taking the fifteen (15) British naval hostages, and then releasing them two weeks later, that Persia was able to advertise its prowess to the International Community and especially the Anglo-American powers(see for example Gregory Djerejian's comments on his online journal: Like much of what he writes these days, it seems written more to the eye to denounce an American Administration, than to offer up a clear-eyed analysis of the contemporary International scene. One wonders if the fact that his pater is part and parcel of the Baker clique, does not influence his thinking excessively at times...). Commentators such as Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr, both trying to bankroll, the 'Persia as the coming colossus', school of thought to journalistic renown, have stated that the crisis demonstrates that Persia can easily and effectively strike back at the Anglo-American powers, when sufficiently provoked (For their 5 April article in the New York Times on this score, In point of fact, as the Persian based sub rosa, commentator "Kamal Nazer Yasin", has recently argued, the whole operation in seizing the British sailors was indeed a reaction to recent American moves both in the Persian Gulf and in Iraq. In the case of the latter, since January of 2007, American forces have staged a series of raids and attacks on targets and personnel believed to be Persian clients and or allies inside Iraq. The seizure of the five Persian 'diplomats' in the Kurdish town of Arbil, being part and parcel of such American activity (see: "Cloak-and-Dagger Occurences mark Iran's relations with the United States, Britain", in But, as has been pointed out, in the aftermath of the crisis, none of the 'Persian five', were released, and, Britain has now, again re-commenced its naval interdiction of the Shatt al-Arab waters, between the two countries for smuggling. To sum up, like Francis Fukuyama below, I will again state for the public record, that it was the Persians in the recent crisis who 'blinked', and staged a climb-down, and not the Anglo-American powers. For Fukuyama's similar take to my own argument, see below:

Actually, Britain didn't blink, the divided Iranians did,

By Francis Fukuyama

"While commentators have charged that Britain capitulated to Iran and handed them a humiliating victory in obtaining the release of the 15 British sailors and marines last week, 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 the one-time president, Ali 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, which 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 Ahmadinejad regime has awarded IRGC-affiliated companies billions of dollars in no-bid contracts, increasing the already great perception among the Iranian public of its corruption.

It is widely believed that Khamenei put President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into office as a means of counterbalancing former President Rafsanjani, and has been regretting this decision ever since as Ahmadinejad spouted off about the Holocaust and pushed Iran deeper into isolation. The current president comes out of the IRGC (specifically, the Ramazan Unit of the Quds Force), and has used that organization and the Basij to help consolidate his power by moving against more liberal political opponents.

No one knows exactly why the naval wing of the IRGC took the 15 British sailors and marines captive at the end of March. Some have speculated that it was a matter of freelancing by the IRGC's command, or the navy, reacting to a local target of opportunity. The IRGC may have wanted some bargaining chips to help secure the release of its members captured in Iraq. It does not seem to be an accident, though, that the capture came quickly after the Security Council passed a very specific set of sanctions against Iran that targeted not just IRGC-affiliated companies and financial institutions like the Ammunition and Metallurgy Industries Group and the Bank Sepah - organizations dealing with nuclear or ballistic missile activities - but also a series of senior IRGC commanders, including Morteza Rezaei, the Guards' deputy commander, Vice Admiral Ali Ahmadian, chief of the Joint Staff, and Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij. By freezing Iranian assets outside of Iran, the United Nations was hitting the IRGC where it hurt: in its pocketbook.

Clearly, whoever was responsible for the decision to take the British sailors and marines prisoner was hoping to 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. Ahmadinejad was supposed to give a major speech to a huge rally in Tehran, 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 wrongdoing 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.

All of this does not mean that there are necessarily "radicals" and "moderates" within the clerical regime in Tehran. Those pulling the IRGC's chain are themselves committed to a revolutionary agenda, and doubtless want a nuclear weapon as badly as the Pasdaran commanders. One of the alleged reasons Khamenei didn't want Rafsanjani as president was because he was not keen enough on the nuclear program.

The Iranian regime is not, however, a totalitarian juggernaut; there are important splits within the leadership and there is an important faction that does not want Iran to be isolated. The IRGC has evolved into something like a mafia organization, with extensive economic interests that lead both to corruption and potential vulnerability to sanctions imposed by the international community.

It is important to remember: those who were responsible for taking the British sailors and marines captive wanted an escalation of the confrontation, both to improve their domestic standing, and to punch back for sanctions that were beginning to bite. This suggests that what the Bush administration has been doing - slowly ratcheting up the pressure through the use of diplomacy to create an international coalition that now includes the Russians - is the proper course to be on".

Francis Fukuyama is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, and chairman of The American Interest magazine ( THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate-The American Interest (c) (


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