Hostage Crisis Solved, Questions Remain

They were two very different crises. One lasted 444 days, humiliated an American president, and became a national obsession as 52 hostages lived in terror of being beaten and executed. The other ended with smiles and handshakes after only 13 days, and the British captives were rewarded, like well-behaved parolees, with shiny new suits. But given that some of the same Iranian players were involved, the Bush administration was only too eager to draw comparisons between the November 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover—for which Iran has never apologized—and the brazen capture of 15 British sailors and Marines in the Persian Gulf, which has now ended (also with no apologies). "This is clearly a regime that, after several decades, continues to view hostage-taking as a tool of its international diplomacy," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's chief spokesman, Sean McCormack, said after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent the Brits home with a grin. "Beyond that, I don't know what other lessons I would draw from the incident."

There may be one other lesson: Washington remains almost as mystified by Iran's behavior today as it was back then. After the latest crisis was resolved, U.S. and British intel officials admitted they were uncertain whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the British service personnel seized, or who exactly inside Tehran decided to end the standoff. U.S. officials vehemently denied any tit-for-tat deal involving the release of Jalal Sharafi, an Iranian diplomat seized in Iraq in February, the day before the Brits were freed. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari endorsed that in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "There was no deal, to be honest with you," he said. But Zebari added that his government decided to help by making "presentations to the Iranians. ... We did facilitate it [the British captives' release]." U.S. officials acknowledge that intelligence regarding what goes on at the highest level of the Iranian government is sketchy at best and generally poor. "It's opaque to us. We admit that," said a senior U.S. official who declined to speak on the record about intelligence matters. Within the U.S. intelligence community, which is still pathologically unsure of itself after Iraq, the lack of insight into Iran is a big cause for worry. U.S. officials tended to play down a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran was installing centrifuges for uranium enrichment at its secret Natanz plant faster than previously thought. Three U.S. national-security and intelligence officials told NEWSWEEK emphatically that U.S. intelligence agencies have no plans to shorten their oft-stated estimate that Iran will not be capable of creating a nuclear weapon until 2010-2015, at the earliest. But Washington-based nuclear expert David Albright now estimates that at the current pace Tehran will have enough material for a bomb two years from now, by 2009. At this rate, he says, the CIA could end up being as surprised as it was by the India and Pakistan nuclear tests of 1998. "I'm worried about that," says Albright.

Still, some Iran observers noted Tehran's seeming eagerness to resolve the latest hostage crisis—a contrast to 27 years ago. Indeed, just hours after the captives were released, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, phoned his European counterpart, Javier Solana. "The Iranians are in a mood to talk," Solana's spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, told NEWSWEEK. An Iranian official with intimate knowledge of the affair, who didn't want to be named talking about sensitive matters, agrees. "Ahmadinejad's toned-down rhetoric at his news conference last week means he is sending a signal to the Americans and their British allies that he's willing to talk about other issues, including nuclear," the official said. Given what U.S. officials admit they don't know, they might do well to listen.