Diplomacy trumps machismo

What should the US do about Iran? Britain's successful effort to free its 15 marines offers useful lessons.

There is now an unhappy irony besetting the Bush administration's involvement in the Middle East.

It went to war in Iraq, which turned out not to be producing the feared nuclear weapon.

Now it is probably not going to war in Iran, which almost certainly is intent on producing the feared nuclear weapon.

Thus the Israelis, who have long argued that Iran is more dangerous than Iraq, can uneasily claim credit for being right.

So the question now is what the United States should do about Iran. It is more of a conundrum than a question, for the options are few.

There is a lot of talk about the lessons America can learn from the recent capture, imprisonment, psychological pressuring, and ultimate freeing of 15 British marines and sailors by a smiling, handshaking Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As he bade them farewell in their Iranian-provided civilian clothes, it was as though he was saying goodbye to them after a two-week holiday on the sun-splashed Iranian "riviera." All that was lacking was the phrase "Do come back and see us again."

I doubt that there will be much enthusiasm from the Britons for an early return to Iran given the treatment they now tell us they received. Seized at gunpoint in the waters between Iraq and Iran, they were flown to Tehran, blindfolded, their hands shackled behind their backs, and backed up against a concrete wall while their Revolutionary Guard captors clicked and cocked their weapons. This kind of intimidation was very similar to that given American hostages seized by Revolutionary Guards at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.

At a press conference in Britain after their release, some of the marines said they thought they were to be executed. Instead, they were photographed and hustled into a cell, where they remained for six days without seeing anyone. Then they were separated, stripped, put in pajamas, and placed in small separate isolation cells, there to undergo psychological pressure.

The sole woman among them was tricked into believing the men had been released. They said they were told to admit they were captured in Iranian waters, after which they would be repatriated. If they did not do so, they were told, they would face several years in an Iranian jail.

I am sure while all this was going on, Britain's Special Air Service soldiers stationed near Hereford, England, veterans of many derring-do missions that may never be told, were raring to mount a rescue operation. It would have been a tough one, as Americans found out in their costly, failed helicopter mission years before to rescue their comrades held hostage in the US embassy. But though British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned darkly of other measures if diplomacy failed, diplomacy it was, perhaps with sticks and carrots unknown to us, that the British employed to bring home their men and one woman.

In Washington, Britain's handling of the situation was closely watched, and has not ended the debate within the Bush administration of how best to get Iran to mend its unconscionable ways.

Though President Bush prudently says that everything is on the table, military force cannot seriously be under consideration. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has brought realism and good sense to the Pentagon, says it is not.

The US military is strained to its limits in Iraq. A fair amount of goodwill toward the US among young Iranians would turn instantly to antiAmerican fervor if America bombed or invaded. And if the postwar occupation of Iraq has been messy, it could be a nightmare in Iran. It is doubtful that the American public would have the stomach for it.

So diplomacy, and multilateral pressure through the European Union and the United Nations, remains the Bush administration's course. Diplomacy can be firm, and the US should continue its campaign to thwart Iran's quest for nuclear weapons (a quest that Tehran, of course, denies).

If it is not yet already abundantly clear to Mr. Ahmadinejad, who sometimes lives in a world of make-believe, the Iranian leadership should be left in no doubt about the awesome consequences of an Iranian-developed nuclear weapon being used by them or their surrogates against the United States or its allies.

Whether Iran's capture of the British servicemen was carefully planned as a Machiavellian taunting of the West or was just one of those spontaneous incidents that sometimes propels surprised nations into confrontation, a shooting war was avoided. While Iran's leadership often seems mysterious and its actions unfathomable, diplomacy can sometimes trump machismo.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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