As most of you have likely heard by now, Iran has announced that will return, as a "gift," the fifteen British sailors it took prisoner. Naturally, the prognosticators are trying to figure out what Iran got out of it: some sort of sanction relief, an exchange of prisoners unnamed, a diplomatic promise of one form or another. Seems to me Iran already got what it wanted. After a very public demonstration of the state of the prisoners, Iran decides, seemingly unilaterally, to release them in time for Easter. This is geopolitical posturing of High Order, and brilliant posturing at that. After making a grand show of standing up to the West, it releases the prisoners in a grander show of magnanimity. Hard as it is to believe, Iran has managed to seize the moral high-ground that the Brits and Yanks left so conspicuously unguarded.
Consider the carnivalesque dichotomy here established. The lasting image, especially in the Muslim world, of UK and US prisoners will be of them being tortured, humiliated and scorned; it'll be a macabre mosaic of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Saddam Hussein. The countries preaching most fervently about freedom and decency will be associated with confinement and abuse, and worse, justifying them. Iran, on the other hand, typically vilified for its repressiveness and authorised cruelty, ends up looking like a humanitarian state. While the West is associated with launching military strikes on holy days, like the start of Ramadan, Iran will be associated with the ostensibly generous observance of Western holy days, namely Easter. The West ends up looking aggressive, violent and hypocritical, especially as it tries to tamp down Iraqi insurgents; Iran ends up looking assertive, but civilised and direct. In short, it's the Bush administration's worst nightmare. It wanted-- needed, very badly-- Iran to behave provocatively, defiantly, despicably. It wanted Iran to demonstrate why it can't be trusted, why it can't be dealt with diplomatically. Instead, Iran gave the West exactly what it professed to want, and then some. In the battle of international perception, the West just took a very nasty hit: it now looks worse than Iran, and you can just imagine how this will play out in the international, and especially Muslim, presses. And worse, Iran will have claimed, however speciously, the moral high-ground not because the UK and especially the US ceded it. The whole thing's a fiasco, and the timing couldn't be worse.
On top of all the nuclear kafuffle, the Bush administration's very public denunciation of House Leader Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria portrays the American government as a bellicose bully that refuses all manner of civil negotiation. (Tony Blair doesn't come off too badly in all this, but he doesn't come off particularly well, either.) I suspect the Pelosi visit was supposed to be the Good Cop part to the Bushy Bad Cop in a diplomatic version of an old routine of dissociated engagement. But even if it wasn't a carefully orchestrated gesture, the American President now looks as obstructionist as he does obstinate, as frustrated (and frustratable) as he is fractious. Ahmadinejad didn't just outplay Bush here. He kneecapped him when he was already limping. The American government could ill-afford another weakening of its international credibility, especially on the so-called "Arab street," but Ahmadinejad managed to lure the President into yet another embarrassment. (He's known so many, you'd think the President would have learnt how to avoid them by now, but no one has ever said he was a quick study.) You can practically hear world leaders snickering to themselves, Methinks he dost protest too much. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad looks like a Shakespearean Duke whose surprising intervention suddenly makes things right.
Factually, of course, much of this is bollocks. Iran hasn't suddenly transformed into a tolerant state, and the West isn't the sneering villain twisting his mustache. But as the saw goes, politics is perception, and the mischaracterizing dichotomy has been established. It won't sell in the West, but in the parts of the world capable of influencing Iran on anything-- China, Russia-- and in those parts most suspicious of American policy-- Pakistan, various African and Middle Eastern states, and above all Iraq-- this will affirm their more cynical inclinations. Sure, it's all theatre, and disingenuous theatre at that. Alas, I expect it may well be more important how all this plays in Waziristan than in Warwickshire or West Chester, and in that regard the American President just got spanked, badly, by the political equivalent of a two-bit thug, who can now boast about how much more benevolently his country treats its prisoners than That Other Country does. And he will. You can count on it.
Then watch the world react as Bush and his gang prattle on about torture and state-sponsored terror, reaping as they will and already are the results of exceptionalism and equivocation. Worse Than Iran. Now that's the gift that keeps on giving.
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