Hostage taking works for the Iranians and it no longer should be allowed to, writes Damien McElroy
Iran's bad behaviour can't continue to be rewarded
Now that a hostage-taking crisis is dominating international relations with Iran, the timing is right for a permanent shift in the country’s reputation in Europe.
Recall the tale of the scorpion and the frog. The frog is carrying the scorpion across the river when the insect bites the reptile. Why? asks the frog. Because that’s what I do, comes the reply.
Boris Johnson must be feeling just like that dying frog. The British foreign secretary cudgels up to defend the Iranian nuclear deal decertified by Donald Trump. He was planning a trip to the US Congress, plus appearances on Fox News, to push for continuity as a great strategic act.
Then an unwitting newspaper journalist persuaded an MP to ask a question about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the woman held in Tehran since 2016, and the foreign secretary fluffed the answer. The scorpions in Iran’s judiciary bit, setting up a bilateral crisis that exposed British diplomatic weakness.
For those at the nub of Iranian aggression in the region, there is little that can be surprising in any revelations in Europe. Iran has already forfeited its reputation in the Middle East. It is now gambling with its gains under the 2015 accord.
The nuclear deal is the product of a fundamental misreading of the Iranian regime that dates back to its earliest days. This is an argument that the Iranian establishment is composed of factions. Efforts to seek out moderates means nurturing contacts, making commercial concessions and promoting cultural outreach.
Looking behind the regime, western politicians place great faith in a youthful demographic bulge. Over time the gamble is that such pressures will tilt the country in a new direction.
Yes, there are tricky calculations. The tenure of the hardline supreme leader, for example, and the question of who comes next.
This generational leap of faith is nothing more than powerful myth. At the opposite pole are those who see the country in the hands of an enduring cult that pursues absolutist goals.
It is important to remember the Iranian revolution established itself as a radical republic. It is dedicated to overthrowing the existing order. That very impulse is written into its backbone.
Why should a radical regime evolve over time into something more pliable and amenable to the world around it?
Hostage-taking works for the Iranians. The 444-day crisis with America was not an unalloyed success for Tehran but it did grant it an enduring identity.
Just over a decade ago I was on a BA flight that brought 15 members of the British military home from Tehran after they had been seized on the Shatt al-Arab and held by the IRGC.
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Behind the flimsy business class curtain, the young sailors and marines were utterly shell-shocked. Their bewilderment at the events of a two-week stay in Iran was entirely natural. They had suffered the humiliation of televised confessions. Iranian TV trumpeted a made-up British apology.
What was remarkable about covering the crisis in the Iranian capital was that it was viewed there as a piece of routine business.
There was talk about moderates pushing to salvage Iran’s reputation by letting the 15 go. Vastly more important was the hard-edged exchange of concessions. The US-led coalition gave up a senior Iranian operative seized at the consulate in Erbil. As I was later to witness, river patrols out of Basra by the British were severely curtailed afterwards. The benefits for Iran at the time were both immediate and ongoing.
The rewards for Iran have escalated, especially since the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement. And in ways that make more episodes inevitable.
Barack Obama ordered heavy-lift cargo planes to fly US$400m into Iran when Washington sought the release of a Washington Post reporter and three other Americans last year. The tranche was part of a $1.7 billion release of frozen assets triggered by the nuclear deal.
A few months after that notorious incident a senior Iranian official – one of the moderates – gave a briefing in London. In short, Britain was not living up to the nuclear deal. The banks of the City of London were not funding investment and trade with Iran as Tehran expected following the deal. Britain was holding Iranian funds.
The tantrum was a signal of a coming showdown. Trouble that has now come to a head.
With the foreign secretary under pressure over Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, British officials announced last week they would look at release £400 million (Dh1.94bn) paid upfront by the Shah for British tanks that were not delivered after the revolution. The money has been held under sanctions on military-related deals with the regime.
No amount of diplomatic engagement can change the fact hostage-taking works for Iran. Raising the cost of its actions is surely better than giving in to its demands.