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Bill Emmott

Great Britain

Bill Emmott is the former editor of The Economist magazine, a leading international current affairs publication from England. He is now an independent writer, speaker, and consultant on international affairs. Close.

Bill Emmott

Great Britain

Bill Emmott is the former editor of The Economist magazine, a leading international current affairs publication from England. more »

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Gitmo Not Exactly Model Diplomacy

Given the complex nature of Iran’s power structure, this question is always worth asking. But it is not at all clear that the answer is particularly helpful in explaining the seizure of the British sailors nor the difficulty in obtaining their release. Governments, especially obstreperous ones that are not all that happy with their country’s status in the world, often behave in this way. You don’t need to solve mysteries about decision-making systems to see that.

The detainment of more than 400 people in Guantanamo Bay for years on end, with no proper judicial procedures or review and in violation of the Geneva Conventions, might equally well raise the question: Who’s running America? The trouble is that we know the answer. It is what they have been doing that is the problem. And by disregarding basic liberties and international conventions in such a cavalier way, the Bush White House has made it easier for other governments to behave just as badly.

Why have the Iranians seized and held these British sailors? The simplest answer is probably the best: because they could. The definition of Iran’s and Iraq’s territorial waters is not clear. Ships sailing close to the (apparent) boundaries can easily make mistakes. We don’t know whether the British government is telling the truth or the Iranians. Neither may actually know the full facts in any case. But it doesn’t matter. Iran had an opportunity to arrest these sailors while being able to claim, with some credibility, that they had strayed into Iranian waters. In the negotiations over their release, it can hope to gain some concessions from the British, even if just to save face. Even if those concessions are quite modest, it will have made its point: don’t mess with us. You can use your sanctions against our nuclear program, because you have some modest leverage over us. You can seize Iranians when they transgress, in Iraq and elsewhere. Well, when we have some leverage over you, we will use it too.

The behavior of the Chinese government in 2001 over the American spy plane that was forced to land on China’s Hainan Island unfolded in a similar way. Once the plane had been seized, the initiative lay in China’s hands, and China used it. The then new Bush administration acted as if it was outraged that Chinese leaders did not immediately get on the phone to the White House and offer to return the plane and its crew. But why should they?

So the answer to the question of how to negotiate with Iran is also simple: with realism. We are dealing with an argumentative, discontented regime that exercises power and leverage in a raw, not even ideological, calculated way.

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