While commentators like Charles Krauthammer and John Bolton have charged that Britain capitulated to Iran and handed them a humiliating victory in obtaining the release of the 15 British Marines last week (when has Krauthammer ever not cried “Munich!” in response to an act of diplomacy?), it would appear that something more like the opposite is actually the case. But to understand why this is so, we have to look at the larger picture of internal Iranian politics against which the crisis played out.
Our Iranian problem is actually a problem with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, or in Persian Pasdaran) and allied institutions like the Basij militia. These are the “power” agencies that serve as the political base for the conservatives inside Iran. In return for its support, political leaders like ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have allowed the IRGC to grow into a semi-autonomous state-within-a-state. Today it is a large and sprawling enterprise, that controls its own intelligence agency, manufacturing base, and import-export companies, much like the Russian FSB or the Chinese military. Since coming to power, the current Ahmedinejad regime has awarded IRGC-affiliated companies billions in no-bid contracts, increasing the already great perception among the Iranian public of its corruption.
It is widely believed that Supreme Leader Khamenei put the current nutcase president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad into office as a means of counterbalancing former president Rafsanjani, and has been regretting this decision ever since as Ahmedinejad spouted off about the Holocaust and pushed Iran deeper and deeper into isolation. The current president comes out of the IRGC (specifically, the Ramazan Unit of the Quds Force), and has used that organization and the Basij to help consolidate his power by moving against more liberal political opponents.
No one knows exactly why the naval wing of the IRGC took the 15 British Marines captive at the end of March. Some have speculated that it was a matter of freelancing by the IRGC’s command, or the navy, reacting to a local target of opportunity. The IRGC may have wanted some bargaining chips to help spring of its members captured in Iraq. It does not seem to be an accident, though, that the capture came quickly after the Security Council passed a very specific set of sanctions against Iran that targeted not just IRGC-affiliated companies and financial institutions like the Ammunition and Metallurgy Industries Group and the Bank Sepah, organizations dealing with nuclear or ballistic missile activities, but also a series of senior IRGC commanders, including Morteza Rezaei, the Guards’ deputy commander, Vice Admiral Ali Ahmadian, chief of the Joint Staff, and Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij. By freezing Iranian assets outside of Iran, the UN was hitting the IRGC where it hurt, in its pocketbook.
Clearly, whoever was responsible for the decision to take the British Marines prisoner was hoping rekindle some of the fervor of the 1979 revolution, and use that to force the rest of the leadership into a confrontation with Britain and America. Hence the televised “confessions” that hearkened back to the taking of hostages in the American Embassy (the “nest of spies”), and the rallies against foreign embassies. But the gambit didn’t work, and there was clearly a behind-the-scenes power struggle between different parts of the regime. Ahmedinejad was supposed to give a major speech to a huge rally in Teheran, which he cancelled at the last moment, and when he did speak, it was to announce that the captives would soon be released. The IRGC prisoners in Iraq were released, but Britain did not apologize or admit wrong-doing in return. So it would appear that it was the Iranians who blinked first, before the incident could spiral into a genuine 1979-style hostage crisis.
All of this does not mean that there are necessarily “radicals” and “moderates” within the clerical regime in Teheran. Those pulling the IRGC’s chain are themselves committed to a revolutionary agenda, and doubtless want a nuclear weapon as badly as the Pasdaran commanders. One of the alleged reasons Khamenei didn’t want Rafsanjani as president was because he was not keen enough on the nuclear program. The Iranian regime is not, however, a totalitarian juggernaut; there are important splits within the leadership and there is an important faction that does not want Iran to be isolated. The IRGC has evolved into something like a mafia organization, with extensive economic interests that lead both to corruption and potential vulnerability to sanctions imposed by the international community.
It is important to remember: those who were responsible for taking the British Marines captive wanted an escalation of the confrontation, both to improve their domestic standing, and to punch back for sanctions that were beginning to bite. This suggests that what the Bush administration has been doing – slowly racheting up the pressure through the use of diplomacy to create an international coalition that now includes the Russians – is the proper course to be on.