Last fall, the Bush administration was debating how to handle the Iranian nuclear threat. It was the now well-trodden tussle between hard-liners and pragmatists. The hard-liners argued that there was no conceivable way to stop Iran's bid for regional hegemony, including its nuclear aspirations, without using military force: the Europeans would never agree to sanctions. The Russians and the Chinese would side with Tehran for commercial reasons. For them, Iran in 2006 was Germany in 1936. We had to bomb it to avert a third world war. The pragmatists countered by proposing a strategy of containment and diplomacy that, working with the rest of the world, would ratchet up the pressure on Iran. Constrained by Iraq, the hard-liners lost the debate. Over the past two months, events have made clear that the containment strategy is working—to a point.
Iran's abduction of 15 British sailors must be seen in the context of its growing isolation. This has been a tough few months for Tehran. In late March the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution aimed at stopping Iran's nuclear program, tightening sanctions on the regime. Not only did Russia and China vote for it, but so did South Africa and Indonesia, despite intense lobbying by Iran. The sanctions are targeted not at the general population but specifically at the regime. The financial measures, aggressively pursued by the Bush administration, have hit where it hurts—at the Tehran ruling elite's bank accounts. In Iraq, U.S. forces apprehended five Iranians in December. And last week Russia temporarily suspended shipments of nuclear fuel to Iran.
Faced with these rising pressures, Tehran appears to be trying to demonstrate that it, too, can push back incrementally. Calibrated measures from the West will be met by calibrated measures from Iran. This incident may not have been centrally planned, but instead seized upon by Tehran's hard-liners. The British military personnel were captured by a unit of the Revolutionary Guards (which is allied with the hard-liners). It is possible that the episode is part of an internal Iranian struggle over the direction of its foreign policy. Vali Nasr, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that "in the past, when the regime has been ready to negotiate with the world, conservative elements within have often created facts on the ground that raise tensions and make such negotiations difficult. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies are trying to defeat the moderates. This current crisis reinforces their position that the West is irredeemably hostile to Iran."
Whatever the internal politics, Iran appears to have miscalculated. Its actions will only confirm to many key countries that it is a reckless and untrustworthy state. Tehran's release of letters and a video of the British sailors making obviously coerced concessions has backfired, strengthening British resolve and European unity. A close aide to Tony Blair who asked to remain anonymous, as is customary at 10 Downing Street, expressed complete satisfaction with the growing support from other European countries. "We couldn't have asked for more," he said.
Senior Iranian officials, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they believed that this matter could be resolved as a similar incident was in 2004. (Then, it did appear that a British ship might have moved into Iranian, or disputed, waters, and London apologized, gaining the release of its sailors.) The Blair aide also recalled that 2004 incident and told me, "We're not trying to make life difficult for the Iranian government on this. There is a way out with dignity for both sides. But we will not make any deals [on Iraq, or the nuclear program]." Both sides seem to understand that Britain would not formally apologize, but London could use some language that would allow Iran to climb down from its perch and release the sailors.
This episode is, in some ways, a metaphor for the broader relationship between Iran and the world. Namely, that pressure works, as long as you can help Tehran chart a way out. Iran is a prickly, nationalistic country with legitimate interests in the Middle East. It makes perfect sense to contain and curtail its efforts to go nuclear, destabilize Iraq and foment trouble in Lebanon and Palestine. But the United States should also think creatively about a way for Iran to get out of the box it is in. Sticks can work only if there are also carrots on the table.
Iran is not some brilliant and all-powerful behemoth, destined to dominate the Middle East. It is a significant regional power, rich with oil resources but burdened by a failing economy and an unpopular and divided leadership. As long as the United States can work with other countries to contain Iran's worst ambitions but yet accede to its legitimate ones, the situation is manageable through diplomacy and not force.