Leadership: The Iranian Family Feud and the British Hostages


March 31, 2007: Whatever prompted the Iranian seizure of 15 British naval personnel on March 23rd, events since then suggest that there are serious internal rifts in the Iranian leadership. Apparently some elements in the Iranian leadership would like the problem to go away. These are the folks who promised to release Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the only woman in the group, with no strings attached. Then there are those who seem to see the incident as a way of twisting the British lion's tail, and, not incidentally, accruing more power to themselves. These are the folks who reneged on the offer to release LS Turney.

There are a number of hostile factions in Iran's leadership. The senior religious leaders, including the Council of Experts, seems to be less hard-line about a lot of issues, such as the country's nuclear weapons program, than some of the more radical elements of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the national militia, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But that's not the only set of rivalries. President Ahmadinejad has taken a strong stand against corruption, which appeals to some of religious extremists, as well as some liberal reformers, while most senior religious leaders are believed to have their hands in the till. Then there is the rivalry between the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the regular Iranian Armed Forces, both of which actually take their orders from the religious leadership, rather than the president. And so on.

Managing this crisis will be tricky. Going in shooting, as some have urged, will certainly inflict serious damage on Iran's military forces and civilian infrastructure. This will likely be emotionally satisfactory to many Brits and Americans. But it will not secure the release of the prisoners. And it will certainly increase the influence of the hard liners, who don't care about the damage anyway. Tony Blair seems to understand this, and has been resisting calls for forceful action. He seems to be pursuing a broad front approach. Britain will bring the matter to the UN, which is already considering increasing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear weapons program. In the meanwhile, those fortuitously scheduled Anglo-American naval "maneuvers" in the area keep open the option of retaliatory action. And there are also likely to be several of back channel approaches to various factions and leaders. In the end, the best resolution to the crisis would be if the Brits can convince the moderates in the Iranian leadership to release the prisoners in exchange for a carefully worded statement in which the UK "apologies" if the naval personnel "inadvertently" strayed into Iranian waters. This may not be possible if the radicals in the Iranian leadership prevail.

In some ways the situation is reminiscent of the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis. Actions taken by each side often had complex causes and consequences. During the Hostage Crisis Iranian leaders often made totally contradictory public statements on a day-by-day basis. Before that crisis was resolved, more than a year passed, and some of the Iranian "soft liners" ended up at the end of a rope as the "hard liners" got the upper hand. But while the "hard liners" prevailed because the crisis seemed to inflict a humiliating defeat on the United States, in fact Iran was the big loser. The crisis provided Saddam Hussein with an opportunity to invade his neighbor, initiating an eight year war, at a time when the Iranian armed forces were suffering from the severance of all American military assistance for their largely American made weapons and equipment.


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