“You know the thing about Iran,” a European Ambassador in Tehran once lamented to me. “It has such a rich culture, a grand history, wonderful people. The cuisine is sophisticated and the scenery is breathtaking. It’s got incredible poets, musicians and filmmakers. Beautiful art and architecture…But it’s cursed with such lousy politicians.”
I was reminded of these words when watching the pageantry of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this morning, announcing that 15 British sailors held captive in Iran would be “pardoned” as an Easter “gift” to the British people in a gesture of magnanimity from “the great Iranian nation.”
Hardliners in Tehran are certain to perceive the entire incident as a diplomatic victory. After all, Iran publicly humiliated its long-time nemesis Britain, and won the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been detained in Iraq.
But at what cost?
From the diplomatic perspective, Tehran may feel like it has chastened the Europeans to think twice before working in concert with the U.S., but in fact they’ve likely achieved the opposite effect. Instead of splitting the international coalition assembled against them by weaning the Europeans away from the Americans—a strategy which Iran successfully employed during the era of reformist President Mohammed Khatami—Iran has further eroded European confidence that there exists a mature Iranian leadership amenable to diplomatic compromise.
And what effect will this have on the moribund Iranian economy, the regime’s Achilles heel? Is the multi-national corporation looking for investment opportunities in the Middle East going to go to Iran or Dubai? Is the international energy firm going to look to sign lucrative natural gas contracts with Iran or Qatar? Are the European tourists who were looking to visit the Middle East this year going to journey to Iran or Egypt?
Iranian hardliners similarly proclaimed victory after the 444 day hostage crisis in 1979 which humiliated the Carter administration. While three decades later the hostage crisis is a blip in the history of the United States, Iran continues to pay for it in terms of a soiled international reputation, political and economic isolation, and vastly unfulfilled potential.
And what about the Iranian people, whom president Ahmadinejad professes to speak for? Ahmadinejad’s entire campaign platform was about compassion for the common man and putting the oil money on people’s dinner tables. But they have been diminished to a mere footnote during his presidency, amidst the bustle about uranium enrichment, centrifuges, holocaust denial, and now British sailors.
Before announcing the release of the sailors, Ahmadinejad felt compelled to lecture the West on gender sensitivity, asking why the UK would send Faye Turney, a mother, on such a compromising mission. “Why don't they respect the values of families in the West?” he asked. “Why is there no respect for motherhood, affection?”
His remarks come one month after a few dozen Iranian women were arrested and/or beaten while peacefully assembling against laws which, among other things, permit stoning women to death if they are convicted of adultery and deny women equal rights in divorce, custody and inheritance. I’m sure the double standard was lost on him.
In characteristic fashion, Iran’s leadership is consumed by short-term tactics at the expense of long-term strategy. In the short term, Iran thumbed its nose at the West and put a smile on the face of millions around the world—especially in the Islamic world—who abhor Western policies in the Middle East.
But once the dust has settled in Tehran, more sober Iranian officials will come to realize that Iran has only increased the time and distance it will need to travel until it can reintegrate itself into the international community and assume its rightful position as a respected member of the league of nations.
Karim Sadjadpour recently joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace after serving four years as the chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group based in Tehran and Washington, D.C. A leading researcher on Iran, Sadjadpour has conducted dozens of interviews with senior Iranian officials, and hundreds across Iranian society. He is a regular contributor to BBC World TV and radio, CNN and National Public Radio, and has written in the Washington Post, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and New Republic.
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