When pundits and politicians talk about “negotiating with Iran,” it conjures up an image of well-dressed statesmen sitting in elegant rooms, talking about the niceties of international relations. But this is only a part of the picture; much of the process is conducted in little hotel rooms by secret intermediaries, and they talk about very unpleasant things, such as torture and blackmail. At least one recent “breakthrough” in relations with Iran was extorted from Great Britain and the United States by an Iranian proxy group in Iraq that kidnaped five British civilians two years ago, and, in the secret negotiations that have been conducted by anonymous middlemen two and three arms’ lengths away from the British Government, have offered to swap them for Shi’ite terrorists in American hands.
At the end of last month, an Iranian-sponsored terror group in Iraq announced that they had reached agreement with Her Majesty’s Government that would result in the staged releases of five British hostages in exchange for several terrorists held by American forces. Not only that, but the Guardian reported that “efforts to finalize the deal were a factor in Britain’s move to re-engage publicly with Hezbollah’s political wing in Lebanon this month.”
In simple English, if the story is true, we and the Brits appeased the Iranians on two levels: we agreed to release their killers and the Brits legitimized Hezbollah. Both we and the British officially reject dealing for hostages.
Kidnaping works most of the time (otherwise they wouldn’t do it), as Tony Soprano would be one of the first to tell you. It works for the Mafia, the Somali pirates, and for terrorists, including Iran’s ruling mullahs. I saw this first-hand in the mid-1980s, when I was an intermediary for the Reagan Administration, dealing with the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose terror instrument, Hezbollah, had taken several American hostages. Like every other democratically elected leader I know of, Reagan could not bear the thought of American citizens being deprived of liberty, and the actual circumstances were even worse: American hostages were being tortured to death. In the course of winning the release of several American prisoners, Reagan made numerous public and secret gestures in favor of the mullahs, and they responded by toning down their anti-American rhetoric, and by calling a temporary halt to the kidnapings. When the Americans agreed to sell weapons to the Iranians, the mullahs ordered Hezbollah to release some hostages. The world saw the “diplomatic” gestures and proclamations, but the secret hostage negotiations were a central part of the story.
I have no doubt that similar secret talks are being conducted today. Iran now holds three American hostages: Robert Levinson, Roxana Saberi, and Esha Momeni. Levinson is an ex-F.B.I. agent who disappeared a year ago while in Iran (I am told he is imprisoned far from Tehran). Saberi is a freelance journalist arrested in Iran at the end of January, and held in Evin prison in Tehran. She has just been formally accused of espionage, for which several Iranians have been executed in recent weeks. Momeni, a graduate student from Cal State University, was conducting research on the Iranian women’s movement (a particularly sensitive theme for the regime, which has just rounded up several of the leaders of the women’s rights movement), and was jailed, again in Evin, last October. She was released from prison three months ago, but remains blocked in Iran.
It may not be entirely coincidental that Iran’s key Asian ally, North Korea, has just taken two American hostages, female journalists who work for Al Gore’s “Current TV.” Do you think the president will refuse to listen to Gore when he begs for help for his people in that awful place? Do you think the president will refuse to act when the parents, children and spouses of the others come to him and implore him to do something to saved their loved ones? On the evidence we have, he agreed to release dangerous terrorists when the government of Great Britain asked him to do it. He can hardly refuse his own people.
The Iranians have successfully manipulated Western policy for decades, and not only, as is often claimed, because they are clever tacticians. Brutality is more characteristic of this regime, and hostage taking is one of their trademarks. It works, in part because nobody has any doubt about their willingness to torture and kill Western hostages, whose bodies would unfortunately fill a good-sized morgue. No wonder that Secretary of State Clinton gave the Iranians a letter about these unfortunate Americans during her “informal” encounter in the Hague.
The president’s promise to change the world by showing “respect” to our enemies was never going to succeed, and the mounting number of hostages seems to demonstrate that our enemies believe they can push him around. There was a moment–in 2003-2004–when the Iranians were frightened of President Bush, but that passed, and I don’t think they view Obama as a dramatic change from the last Bush years. They are doing what they are doing, taking hostages because that is what they do, and because they know it works. Just as the scorpion explained to the crocodile, who thoughtfully gave the scorpion a ride to the other side of the river, only to be stung. “Why?” cried out the croc. “Because I am a scorpion.”