Our Snatched Sailors: Who to Really Blame

Ten sailors aboard two Navy riverine patrol boats, such as those pictured here, were seized by Iran in the Persian Gulf on January 12. Tehran has told the United States the crew members will be promptly returned, according to U.S. officials. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Lewis/U.S. Navy/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

There's a common delusion out there that when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fires off ballistic missiles or kidnaps sailors, it's either hard-line elements trying to embarrass moderates, or rogue actors.

It may be a comforting conceit to believe that any element of the Iranian government is on "our side," but evidence suggests that at best the Islamic Republic is playing a game of good cop-bad cop, and that outrages such as taking American sailors hostage are welcome, not rogue, actions.

[Related: Iran Releases 10 Detained U.S. Sailors: State Television]

Let's put aside the fact that Article 110 of the Iranian constitution (backed by practice and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) makes the supreme leader the "supreme commander of the armed forces" with the power to appoint and dismiss the chief of the general staff, IRGC commanders and the commanders of the army, navy and air force. In other words, if Supreme Leader wanted to make heads roll in response to such provocations, he could.

There's a history here of Western diplomats excusing bad Iranian behavior out of a desire to exculpate "reformers" or to dismiss provocations as the action of rogues.

  • In 1989, for example, there was the Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou assassination, when Iranian officials—meeting an Iranian Kurdish leader and his aides to negotiate an end to strife between Iranian Kurds and the central government—ended up assassinating the Kurdish team at an apartment in downtown Vienna.
  • Then, in 1992, after the German foreign minister announced a policy to re-integrate Iran into the global community and increase trade, the Iranian government responded by assassinating another Kurdish delegation, at a restaurant in Berlin.
  • In 1994, an Iranian terrorist team blew up the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Beginning in 2003, the IRGC (despite the promises of then U.N. ambassador and now Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif) began infiltrating Iraq and equipping militias to murder American soldiers.
  • And, finally, in 2007 there was the case of British sailors seized by the IRGC.

In each case, Western diplomats sought to deny Iranian government responsibility. What they did not realize until later was that in each case, the gunman or chief planner ended up with a promotion.

Mohammad Jafari Sahraroudi, for example, the man behind Ghassemlou's murder, subsequently became a brigadier general in the Qods force and was placed in charge of its intelligence directorate.

Ahmad Vahidi, the mastermind of the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing, became President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defense minister.

Hassan Kazemi Qomi, a Qods force operative serving as "ambassador" to Iraq, later won promotion to the supreme leader's office, and Colonel Abolqasem Amangah, the commander of the operation that seized the British sailors, was later decorated as soldier of the year.

Promotions are hardly the punishment one would expect if the Iranian behavior really was not blessed, encouraged and supported from the very top. It's time to stop deluding ourselves and to judge Iran by what its actions are rather than what we would wish them to be.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official. His major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.