The release of 15 British sailors and Marines, though met with howls of derision by some on the rightward spectrum of politics, is good news to those with an appreciation of the human cost of war. Unfortunately for our neoconservative brethren, a seemingly perfect casus belli – the illegal seizure of allied forces – has been defused with a whimper. But a facet of the whole situation seems to have gone largely unremarked (including by me). While hawkish conservatives seem to have rediscovered a fidelity to the Geneva Conventions (the show-confessions broadcast by Iran are a violation thereof), the conservative pundits missed something right in their face, something it took Hooman Majd, in today’s Salon [subscription or viewing an ad required], to point out. Something telling about the whole situation that, as blind as we are to the complexities of Persian culture, puts a whole new spin on the situation.
Majd pointed out that this whole game of diplomatic one-upsmanship occurred over the course of an Iranian holiday where the country literally shuts down – even the papers and television stations cease regular production. The show-confessions of the British sailors and Marines were broadcast in Arabic over Iran’s Arabic-speaking satellite station, a station that few within Iran watch, as few Iranians actually speak Arabic as their first language. However, the station is watched by many Shia and other Arabs throughout the Middle East.
No, Iran’s intent – clearly at the behest of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei (to whom the Revolutionary Guard reports, not Amahdinejad as reported by right-wing media) – was to evangelize to the Arab street. It was a brilliant showpiece, part of the set that has included its support of Hezbollah and Iraqi militias as well as its reconstruction and outreach efforts in Palestine and Lebanon. This was meant to evangelize the Iranian position to other Arabs. The British reaction smacked of colonialism, which, it is abundantly clear, still lingers in many Arabs’ minds. More importantly, Iran’s visual component – said broadcasts – were intended to contrast with the Arab street's outrage over the Coalition treatment of Iraqi and other Arab prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the gulag archipelago of secret prisons throughout the world.
Far from seeking mindless belligerence in the furtherance of millennial Shi’ism’s invocation of the 12th Imam, Khamanei sought to portray Iran as the very paragon of Arab decency in direct contrast to the barbarity of the crusading invaders who stand in the way of Iranian regional hegemony. Khamanei, while a theocrat, is also a ruthlessly brilliant evangelical for Iranian primacy: The West’s allies in the region are notoriously afraid of their common man, hinging as they do on nepotist oligarchies. Iran’s appeal was not to the leaders, but to the street, where its power grows.
This is a subtle, brilliant piece of political kabuki, one that Americans in particular seem ill-prepared to grasp (I myself only danced around the possibility and did not grasp its full implications). In addition to contrasting Iranian behavior in a favorable light – with the magnanimous return of unharmed, well-fed prisoners as a “humanitarian gesture” – the Arab street cannot fail to grasp a further demonstration of American hypocrisy. After all, the average Arab still lives under an elitist system of one form or another, with weak parliaments subservient to all-powerful executives when a nod to modern democracy is even made. American neoconservatives, citing the transformative nature of their noble mission to spread democracy, still allows its allies to persist in suppressing modern representative democracy (and indeed, cannot seem to make it work in a country it occupies and – to the average Arab watcher – brutalizes).
Iran, meanwhile, under the banner of Shia Islam, offers a genuinely – if theocratic – transformative option that is both familiar to the street and temptingly terrifying to their rulers. This incident has emerged as a win-win for Iran: Either many a common Arab continues to be swayed towards revolution, or their leaders, terrified of that revolution, act to appease the revolution’s fomenters in Tehran.
There was no solution conducive to a Western “victory” in this case. Any belligerent response would have simply demonstrated, in stark contrast to Iran’s public treatment of the captives, the barbaric and hypocritical nature of the West (American soldiers have been seizing Iranian officials in Iraq and holding them incommunicado for months now). Instead, the neoconservative desire to always appear strong, to view communication as appeasement and treason, and their concomitant pre-conceived notion of Iran’s belligerent irrationality, prevented any other outcome.
[This essay originally appeared on Often Right, Rarely Correct—ed.]