Iran Has Made Hostage-Taking a Diplomatic Tool

Once again, Iran has taken hostages. This time, they are Britons—four of them young crewmembers of a racing yacht sailing out of the tiny principality of Bahrain, and one of them a radio announcer who was along for the ride. As usual, the Iranian regime is claiming that these people broke the law, in this case by wandering into Iran's territorial waters. As usual, Iranian officials are threatening to denounce them as spies. And, as usual, all Tehran is proving is that it makes up laws—whether of the sea (disorientation does not constitute espionage), of nations (they have confounded nuclear negotiators), of Iran, or of God--for the convenience of the people currently holding power.

"Who doth more wrong than such as forge a lie against Allah, or deny His Signs?" asks the Quran. Who, indeed, does more wrongs of this kind than the supposedly religious government of Iran? Its history is pock-marked by criminal behavior for tactical advantage—whether murdering opponents, kidnapping reporters and diplomats, or taking random hostages to use for political barter. Literally hundreds of people were victimized this way in the 1980s and early 1990s in Iran and in Lebanon. Some of them died long, horrifying deaths in captivity. This is not the tradition of the Iranian people, but it is standard operating procedure for Iran's supposedly supreme "jurisprudent," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And it is the tradition in which the thugs of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been nurtured.

So, how do you deal with such a regime? Let's put aside the specific cases of the British hostages taken last Wednesday, or the three American hikers arrested near the border with Iraq in July, or the innocent young French woman now under house arrest in France's Tehran Embassy. Let's not even mention the hundreds of Iranian hostage-prisoners—some of them dual American, French, or Canadian citizens—arrested after the electoral upheaval of June. Indeed, since Ahmadinejad took over four years ago, some 35 foreign nationals or dual nationals have been imprisoned for use as chump change in one sordid deal or another.

The bottom line for President Barack Obama is: how do you negotiate any kind of agreement about nuclear weapons with a regime that believes it is above the law? "Trust, but verify," Ronald Reagan said when dealing with the Russians. How can inspectors verify if they might be accused at any moment of spying, and then taken prisoner? The record gives us every reason to believe that sort of thing could happen in Iran, even if an agreement is reached: the inspectors get near to a sensitive secret site, they are accused and jailed, and then whatever was there is spirited away. Or, more likely still, the Iranians start to pressure and persecute local employees. Just this summer, the government arrested several local staff members for the British embassy.

Ultimately, any nuclear deal with Tehran will have to be backed by a credible threat of force. But that is hard to muster given the mess the Bush administration left behind, with America's depleted military badly overextended. Yet, looking forward, that's no reason, in public and private diplomacy, for Obama to accept excuses for the Tehran regime's criminal behavior.

Traditional notions of justice under Islam—with God's law interpreted by Grand Ayatollahs and codified in the constitution of the Islamic Republic—are strong among many of Iran's most respected conservative clerics. But they seem irrelevant to the Iranian president's coterie. The political operatives' self-serving interpretations of law and morality have developed hostage-taking into a kind of automatic political reflex ever since Iranian students seized 52 Americans from the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held them for 444 days. "It was a tool of the poor, who have no power," says French scholar Bernard Hourcade, who lived and studied in Iran during the first decades of the revolution. But in the years since, many among the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have, as Hourcade puts it, "resorted to this tool very quickly, and don't think about using others."

As Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari's recent account of four months' imprisonment made clear, the regime wants to convince the world and perhaps even itself that there is a vast conspiracy to undermine its credibility at home and abroad. But outside the totalitarian fantasyland of tortured prisoners and tortured reasoning into which the regime has sunk, it's obvious that the single most damaging blow to its credibility is inflicted by its own behavior.

No hostile power, no American or British or Israeli spy could have done a more effective job of demeaning the Islamic Republic and humiliating the Iranian people than its own leaders. Indeed, it's no accident that members of Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Israeli government and other prominent neocons were relieved when they heard the beetle-browed, Jew-baiting, journalist-jailing Ahmadinejad had been reelected last June. (It meant an unknown, less maniacal face wouldn't weaken international resolve to halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions.) Ahmadinejad's government makes the case every day in every way that it does not belong to the community of nations but to the little club of the world's leftover totalitarians.

This regime of this president and this renegade ayatollah has lost all sense of its relationship to law, justice, or morality. It has forged a lie before Allah for all to see, and called it the Islamic Republic.