I share skdadl's relief at the release, by Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of Britain's fifteen sailors and marines earlier today. The suddenness of the move was a surprise, although I had believed that, after a somewhat longer period of tension, the captive Brits would have eventually been released.
It is easier, now that the release has happened to take a look at what might have precipitated Ahmadinejad's unexpected action. What follows is nothing more than speculation. I honestly have no idea what is going on in the mind of the President of Iran. I don't think anybody can claim they have any real idea. That Ahmadinejad is a dangerously unstable individual should not be dismissed as the only reason for his sudden act of magnanimity. I do believe the man has synapses firing in the wrong order at odd times and his decision to release the captive Royal Navy personnel could as easily have been a sudden increase in serotonin as much as any diplomatic or strategic consideration.
Nevertheless, there are some ideas which could be taken into account as to why a sane person would have released those service personnel at this time and in such a surprise move.
Ahmandinejad has a few domestic problems. The former mayor of Tehran came to power after solidly winning an election in which his major campaign promise was to improve the standard of living for millions of Iranians living in poverty. It is a promise he has most decidedly failed to deliver upon.
When he took office, Mr Ahmadinejad promised to raise the standard of living for the huge number of Iranians living in poverty. Many of the 17 million people who voted for him did so in the expectation that he would create jobs, curb inflation and alleviate poverty.A great deal of the criticism he has faced in Iran was as a result of his near exhausting of the Iranian oil revenues reserve fund, without showing much in the way of results. He has been accused in the Iranian parliament of running a government which lacks direction. This is compounded by the fact that Ahmadinejad has been preoccupied with international pressure over Iran's nuclear program and an equal amount of domestic pressure over how badly he has handled international relations. The imposition of UN sanctions has only worsened his ability to deal with domestic problems and, in Iran, has highlighted his abysmal foreign policy. Add to all that the fact that his own intransigence in agreeing to a compromise list of conservative candidates for the municipal elections resulted in a split conservative vote and a massive loss for his party at the polls.
Instead, inflation has risen, there has been no decline in unemployment and there have been huge price rises in the housing sector. The gap between rich and the poor has shown no sign of narrowing.
After the announcement of UN sanctions, Iran's Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wouldn't speak to Ahmadinejad for three months and, despite what the world heard from Ahmadinejad, he kept a low domestic profile until the end of February. The truth is, Ahmadinejad is very much on the ropes at home. Parliament has the authority to vote on his competence and the Supreme Court of Iran can put the President on trial for failure to carry out his constitutional duties. If either body produced a result against Ahmadinejad's favour, the Surpreme Leader, who actually has all the power in Iran, would be in a position to dismiss the President. Both constitutional bodies had made noises in the general direction of a vote of non-confidence or trial and apparently, the only thing stopping them was the amount of attention being paid to Iran by the rest of the world. The immoderate position of the Bush administration in dealing with Iran may have saved Ahmedinejad. An internal blood-letting of the government's executive would create and demonstrate a weakness. With the US threatening war, they couldn't risk any additional internal chaos.
What happened next is not speculation. Ahmadinejad is a typical hard-line conservative. When things are going badly, personally and politically, engage in theatre and create a diversion. The arrest of the British sailors and marine was just that - a means of diverting the attention of his political critics through a demonstration of sovereignty. Where he had been criticized for failing to show enough resolve and diplomatic acumen in dealing with the west over Iran's nuclear plan, defending his country's sea frontier, particularly over an unresolved border, would go some distance in rectifying his image.
He just had to make it last long enough to make it look like he was in charge. A sane individual would enter into such a plan with great trepidation. The risk was high, particularly since the Bush/Cheney led United States was looking for any reason to launch an attack. No one is accusing Ahmadinejad of sanity although one could say that his selection of the British Royal Navy as the target was fairly clever. The British were independent enough to tell Bush/Cheney to butt out and large enough to attract a good deal of attention. And, whether Ahmadinejad knew it or not, the British will usually play out diplomacy to exhaustion, notwithstanding the Blair pliant submission to Bush's will on the invasion of Iraq.
That would explain the capture of British troops, but why suddenly release them?
Well, there is the possibility that it was related to the newly imposed UN sanctions. The initial capture being theatre for everyone's benefit, both at home and around the globe, the sudden release of the captives had the same effect. Ahmadinejad had pretty much played out his hand. Three European Union countries, Germany, France and Italy, had been hesitant to go forward with sanctions. That was until Iran captured and then kept Royal Navy personnel. As the days of the detention went on, those three European countries were starting to harden up and there was some indication that those countries would impose further sanctions. German commercial firms, such as the Commerzbank, withdrew from arrangements with Iran.
Domestically, Ahmedinejad would have appeared somewhat magnanimous. Given the way the world views Iran, to do less than put the British troops on trial, would be looked-upon as extremely generous. While that does little to improve the general view that Ahmadinejad is incompetent, it may have had the effect of casting him in a slightly more favourable light, particularly at the Supreme Leader level. A release with a statement that says Britain will not violate Iranian waters again can now being interpreted as a diplomatic victory, (even though Britain never actually said that), and it would be a first for Ahmedinejad.
Ahmedinejad is probably being viewed as less aggressive and more accommodating on the international stage. Certainly one of the arguments Ahmadinejad can be expected to use is that, after a short period of consideration, the British troops, although legally detained, presented no real threat to Iran, therefore were released back to their home country. It could be held out that the United States detains people for years, without a trial, without specific charges and without much indication of release in the near future. Iran can then claim to have a better appreciation for the rule of law than the US.
Lastly, there is some Asian logic at work. By releasing the captives and not putting any serious demands on Britain, Ahmedinejad will now believe the British "owe him one". There was a test of British willingness to continue a dialog with Iran on a critical issue. By releasing the captives before Britain lost patience Ahmadinejad may well believe he has earned some diplomatic capital with Britain. Something he can call on in the future when faced with Bush administration sabre-rattling. Ahmedinejad's view would be something along the line of, "Hey! We resolved that problem without going to war. In fact, I resolved it before you even got really frustrated. Just think what we can do together against whatshisname. If we need help, we won't hesitate to call."
That, or maybe it was just that Ahmadinejad had a sudden and uncontrolled burst of exocytosis resulting in a moment of sanity.