Juan Cole: Khamenei Used British Captives to Energize Iranian Nationalism (interview)

Historians in the News

Juan Cole, an expert on Iran and other Middle East issues, says once the British sailors and marines were captured, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used the incident “to whip up Iranian nationalistic sentiments” and garner popular support for the relatively unpopular government. Cole, who publishes the blog Informed Comment, says the captives were released when Khamenei was satisfied that Iran would not lose face and he could ensure the situation would not “spiral out of control.” He thinks it is “not impossible” that Iran might agree to a nuclear enrichment suspension if a proper formula can be found.


[Q] The British-Iranian hostages crisis has ended. What do you think was in the minds of the Iranians when the British sailors and marines were captured, and what do you think led to the dramatic release?

[A]My suspicion is that the capture itself was opportunistic. You had these Revolutionary Guards out there and they saw the British exposed and they seized them. At that point it became a question of what the top political leadership would do. And I think the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decided to use the capture to whip up Iranian nationalistic sentiments and garner popular support for [the Iranian] government, which is relatively unpopular these days. Khamenei has the difficulty that he represents the ideology of the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, who founded the current Iranian state. Khomeini had developed the doctrine that the clerics should rule until the Islamic promised one, the Mahdi, returned. And Khamenei represents that ideology which is puritan in character, puts restrictions on individual liberties, and is fairly dictatorial. It isn’t popular.
Although Iranians by and large, as far as we can tell, don’t much care for this ideology anymore, they are still very nationalistic. And so Khamenei played this capture of the British sailors as a national moment. You even had the medical students of Isfahan University issuing a communiqué demanding that the British sailors and marines not be released and be punished for their incursion into Iranian national sovereign waters.

[Q] And the decision to let them go after almost two weeks?

[A] Well, a moment of national fervor can’t be sustained very long. Khamenei had gotten out of it what he wanted to get out of it. In addition, British Prime Minister Tony Blair first responded by threatening to take the conflict to what he called a “different phase,” i.e. violence. The British immediately complained to the United Nations Security Council, which condemned Iran. And those kinds of actions and statements caused Iran to lose face, and made Khamenei dig in his heels. But on Sunday, the British Defense [Secretary Des Browne], announced that the British were engaged in direct bilateral talks behind the scenes with the Iranians. It’s clear that the British were prepared to make representations to Iran, that they had no desire to enter their waters, that they would avoid doing so. So the direct bilateral talks and the pledge not to violate Iranian sovereignty were face-saving for Iran.

Iran politics—and this is generally true of politics on the whole—is all about saving face. The combination of Khamenei having gotten what he could get domestically out of the capture, the British change in tone, which was instanced by the Iranian spokesman, and also the dangerousness of the whole enterprise—it could spiral out of control after all—contributed to the decision to end it....
Read entire article at Bernard Gwertzman at the website of the Council on Foreign Relations

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