This explores the potential of hostage taking by Iran. It has occurred before.
In 1979, the former Shah of Iran, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi was admitted to the U.S. by Jimmy Carter, for cancer treatment in New York. Iran demanded the return of the Shah to face trial and inevitable execution. The U.S. refusal was the proximal cause of what followed, though, as with everything involving crowd psychology, one doesn’t find a primer cord linking events.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Ayatollah Khomeini originally instructed that the students were to be thrown out. But as asylum for the Shah was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini used the student action to create an utterly polar adversity with the U.S. This was highly beneficial to consolidation of power, and the implementation of Khomeini’s singular addition to Shia Islam, Velâyat-e Faqih, a form of Islamic theocracy.
Thus began the longest hostage crisis in history: 55 hostages for 444 days, until January 20, 1981. U.S. power was helpless to intervene; protracted negotiations ensued; the hostages were released the day after Jimmy Carter left office. Who won?
Western historians see no gains of substance by Iran. It seems likely that Saddam Hussein was emboldened by the U.S.-Iran freeze to start the Iran-Iraq War. Hence in Western eyes, the episode was intensely self-damaging. But our logic is not that of revolutionaries. In their minds at that time, the hostage crisis eased the task of purging and suppressing lingering sympathies towards the West. In comparison to how many executions would have otherwise been required, they may still congratulate themselves.
Iran’s counter strategy to U.S. oil sanctions has been asymmetrical, deniable, and/or nonlethal. While Iran’s ability to execute this strategy has not diminished, the seizure by the UK of the Grace 1 may indicate to Iran a failure of this strategy to support foreign policy goals. The Grace 1 was seized for violation of EU sanctions against Syria, not U.S. sanctions against Iran, inspiring Iran’s threat to seize a British tanker. (CNN) Official warns Tehran could seize UK oil tanker if Iranian ship not released. But since the West is the enemy, it’s a distinction of little import.
With the preparation implied by weeks of heightened U.S. presence in the Gulf, this would likely result in a fight. How much of a fight is unpredictable, since the faster trigger finger wins. Quoting Arleigh Burke, who gained fame as a destroyer captain, “The difference between a good and great officer is about ten seconds.”
If the sanctions are maintained, regime change will not result. But as with the individual, any society, under extreme pressure, tends to shed the niceties of civilization, regressing to earlier forms — the forms of childhood, or revolution. To date, Iran has relied on crudely technological methods to create a calculus of physical damage favorable to diplomacy, without success.
Under psychological regression, these methods will be augmented by methods which applied to the directly to humans, exacting a price without any technology at all. Hence, hostage-taking, domination of the nightly news, national agony and political ruin that Jimmy Carter can relate in the first person. Most of the Iranian actors are still around.
On the heels of Iranian limpet mine attacks on tankers in the Gulf, and the drone shoot-down, I can’t help but smile. But note, the seizure of the Grace 1, making the ship a “material hostage”, may inspire Iran as a blurry analogy to human hostage taking.
The political structure of Iraq is so porous, hostages can be opportunistically grabbed and exfiltrated to Iran with little difficulty. In a twist that might bring a wicked smile to some, hostages could be detained at the site of the 1979 hostage crisis, the former U.S. Embassy in Iran, now an IRGC training center.
Don’t let it happen.