There must be weeping and gnashing of teeth -- done discreetly behind closed doors, of course -- in certain circles in Washington today. The Iranians announced they would, and then did release the 15 British sailors and marines they captured March 23, and it all happened without so much as a bomb being dropped or a saber rattled. To top it off, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who can be pretty flaky sometimes (to put it mildly), played it to the hilt, scoring a propaganda coup. He called it a "gift" to the British people, given out of the generosity and humanity of the Iranian people. mentioning both Easter and Muhammad's birthday. Thus he preserved his contention that Iran had really been offended, having its territorial waters violated, but chose to be the civilized party in the affair. Good acting.
Oh, how badly some of the neocons wanted to show some military muscle, though a few of them probably do understand that the U.S. military is overstretched thanks to the misadventure in Iraq. It must be acknowledged, however, that the U.S. Navy and Air Force have not been decimated by the Iraq war, and if the U.S. were to do anything against Iran it would at least start with naval and air attacks.
Expect recriminations from some quarters in the U.S., quietly but firmly viewing the Brits as having been kind of wussy in this matter. No matter. It worked. From the people I talked to today, it looks as if the Brits played it just about right. They never acknowledged violating Iranian waters, declared themselves the aggrieved party and publicly refused to negotiate with hostage-takers -- although I'd be amazed if there weren't some back channels used. Sky News said its sources claim Qatar and Syria were involved in bringing the incident to a resolution. Would like to track that down.
I don't know whether the original capture happened because of some overzealous local commander or was ordered from the center. It probably wasn't coincidental that the Brits were taken a day after it was announced that the UN Security Council was likely to impose new sanctions over the nuclear issue.
I suspect that the Ahmadinejad faction wanted to put the Brits on trial but cooler heads among the mullahs prevailed and Ahmadinejad did what he was told -- though we may know quite a bit more in the coming days.
If the Bush administration were wise, it would step back, take a deep breath, and open more direct talks with Iran. I don't think the U.S. is likely to leave the Persian Gulf anytime soon -- though I can make a solid case that this wouldn't be a bad course. We don't need a military presence there to get the oil. Those countries basically have nothing if they don't sell oil, and at some level they know it.
However, assuming the U.S. keeps a presence in the region, it will have to acknowledge that Iran (even if there's regime change) will be a key regional power whose interests will sometimes coincide with and cometimes conflict with U.S. interests, but in any event wuill have to be taken into account. Right now, both have an interest -- spurred on by the Saudis in the case of Iran -- in making sure Iraq doesn't get even more chaotic. (Iran probably viewed it as being in their interest to stir the pot in Iraq for a while, but long-term chaos would disrupt their goal of having essentially a friendly and reasonably stable Shia government in power there.)