Cole: Khamenei Used British Captives to Energize Iranian Nationalism

Juan Cole, an expert on Iran, says Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used the capture of British military personnel “to whip up Iranian nationalistic sentiments” to garner support for his regime.

April 05, 2007

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Juan Cole, an expert on Iran and other Middle East issues, says once the British sailors and marines were captured, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used the incident “to whip up Iranian nationalistic sentiments” and garner popular support for the relatively unpopular government. Cole, who publishes the blog Informed Comment, says the captives were released when Khamenei was satisfied that Iran would not lose face and he could ensure the situation would not “spiral out of control.” He thinks it is “not impossible” that Iran might agree to a nuclear enrichment suspension if a proper formula can be found.

The British-Iranian hostages crisis has ended. What do you think was in the minds of the Iranians when the British sailors and marines were captured, and what do you think led to the dramatic release?

My suspicion is that the capture itself was opportunistic. You had these Revolutionary Guards out there and they saw the British exposed and they seized them. At that point it became a question of what the top political leadership would do. And I think the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decided to use the capture to whip up Iranian nationalistic sentiments and garner popular support for [the Iranian] government, which is relatively unpopular these days. Khamenei has the difficulty that he represents the ideology of the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, who founded the current Iranian state. Khomeini had developed the doctrine that the clerics should rule until the Islamic promised one, the Mahdi, returned. And Khamenei represents that ideology which is puritan in character, puts restrictions on individual liberties, and is fairly dictatorial. It isn’t popular.

Although Iranians by and large, as far as we can tell, don’t much care for this ideology anymore, they are still very nationalistic. And so Khamenei played this capture of the British sailors as a national moment. You even had the medical students of Isfahan University issuing a communiqué demanding that the British sailors and marines not be released and be punished for their incursion into Iranian national sovereign waters.

And the decision to let them go after almost two weeks?

Well, a moment of national fervor can’t be sustained very long. Khamenei had gotten out of it what he wanted to get out of it. In addition, British Prime Minister Tony Blair first responded by threatening to take the conflict to what he called a “different phase,” i.e. violence. The British immediately complained to the United Nations Security Council, which condemned Iran. And those kinds of actions and statements caused Iran to lose face, and made Khamenei dig in his heels. But on Sunday, the British Defense [Secretary Des Browne], announced that the British were engaged in direct bilateral talks behind the scenes with the Iranians. It’s clear that the British were prepared to make representations to Iran, that they had no desire to enter their waters, that they would avoid doing so. So the direct bilateral talks and the pledge not to violate Iranian sovereignty were face-saving for Iran.

Iran politics—and this is generally true of politics on the whole—is all about saving face. The combination of Khamenei having gotten what he could get domestically out of the capture, the British change in tone, which was instanced by the Iranian spokesman, and also the dangerousness of the whole enterprise—it could spiral out of control after all—contributed to the decision to end it.

Is it your view that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is really just a political spokesman for Khamenei?

Well, it’s worse than that. I don’t think Khamenei likes Ahmadinejad very much. Probably by now he considers it to have been an error on his part to have backed Ahmadinejad for the presidency. I followed the Iranian press during this current crisis, and what was remarkable was how little Ahmadinejad was allowed to say about the whole thing.

That’s quite interesting. As you know there are a number of issues involving Iran, the most significant being the effort by the Western powers to engage Iran in a negotiation to put an end to any nuclear weapons threat from Iran. Do you think the solving of the hostage crisis can be translated into a move on the nuclear issue?

The European Union negotiations on this issue have proceeded with some hope. It’s not to the point yet where those negotiations have been broken off. The Iranians are upset and afraid concerning the UN Security Council resolutions and the sanctions that are beginning to be imposed. The problem for them is, again, a matter of face, in the sense that the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty does allow them to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear-energy purposes. From their point of view, even the demand to suspend the enrichment is arbitrary. Why would the international community insist they stop doing something they’re allowed to do by international treaty law?

Now the problem, of course, for the international community is that there’s a strong suspicion that if the Iranians can enrich for civilian nuclear-energy purposes, that they will be a long way toward the capability of enriching for weapons purposes. The Iranians say that they have no intention of enriching for weapons purposes, which would be a somewhat different and much more complex problem. The supreme jurisprudent Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are incompatible with Islamic law, because war, of course, in Islam, is a ritual. It’s incompatible with Islamic thinking on war that one would kill non-combatants. And nuclear weapons, obviously, would tend to mainly kill non-combatants.

From the Iranian point of view, the accusation that they are trying to get nuclear weapons is already a sign that the West believes Khamenei, the supreme theocrat, is lying about his own principles with regard to Islamic law. I think they’re somewhat confused by the accusation. Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, can’t find good evidence the Iranians have a nuclear weapons program. He can’t completely rule it out, but he can’t certify it exists. So if we take the fact that Iran is a clerical theocracy seriously, it’s hard to dismiss Khamenei’s fulminations against nuclear weapons. If we take that in combination with Mr. ElBaradei’s findings, or lack thereof, the case could be made that the Iranians really do just have a civilian nuclear-energy program, and that they feel the world is against them. And they can’t understand entirely why anybody should try to stop them from having nuclear energy.

The critics, of course, charge that Iran has been obfuscating its program. But I was really more interested if you think it’s likely that Iran might give them a suspension [of uranium enrichment] of a month or so.

The successful British diplomacy around the sailors was direct bilateral talks and face-saving pronouncements. So that seems to be what works with this regime. If the Europeans can find a way to speak directly to the Iranians and to frame the suspension in a way that doesn’t seem to injure Iranian feelings about national sovereignty, then it’s not impossible that they could have a suspension. The door is open, but I can’t be sure that they would, either. It’s certainly not the case that the regime is completely inflexible, and it’s not the case that this is a regime with which you can’t negotiate.

What’s the status, at least from the Iranian perspective, of this regional conference on Iraq, which had its first session in Baghdad last month, and is supposed to meet again this month in Turkey?

That conference in March was an important step in the sense that the Iranians, the Syrians, and the other neighbors were there, and the U.S. ambassador talked to them all, including Iran. The Iranians agreed to be talked to, and the Americans agreed to talk to them, but on a narrow basis. The only thing Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was allowed to bring up, on the American side, was security in Iraq and what Iran might contribute to it. Representations were made to the Iranians by the Americans that they had evidence Iran was supplying some weaponry to some militia groups in Iraq, which the Americans felt was unhelpful. Initially, in the previous year, Iran had said it wouldn’t talk to the United States only on one issue—it wouldn’t accept a narrow parlay. That changed over the course of the year.

Diplomacy always proceeds by people talking to one another, not by freezing them out. But that conference had the disadvantage of not producing any commitments, any program of action, any concrete results whatsoever. That was a disappointment. Wherever they hold the next installment, it’s important that it produce something more practical.