The British Empire may be well past its prime, yet it is still viewed by many in Iran to be a power-almost a demonic presence-in world affairs. There is a long and complex history behind this attitude:
* For some two hundred years, the British Raj in India was the eastern neighbor of Persia;
* Then, following World War I, came the conquest of Iraq to the west, and complex conspiracies in Tehran and among the minority tribes;
* Following Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh's nationalization, in 1951, of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, better known today as BP-British Petroleum, or as some Iranians render these initials, "Bloody Pirates"), it was the British secret service, the MI6, who, together with Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., and his CIA team, led a countercoup that reestablished the power of the monarchy.
Thus, it was not surprising that when the wounded lion began to growl loudly, the leadership in Tehran (apparently after some sharp internal debates) decided to let the fifteen abducted British sailors (including one woman) go free, hoping perhaps to generate some goodwill-they were sent home with a personal present from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-and thus slow the momentum toward further sanctions. It has yet to be seen whether this tactical device actually served Iran's purpose. One thing is already certain: The tendency of modern democracies, and even more so of modern media, to focus on human interest stories rather than on the weightier matters of strategy and the balance of power has relegated the Iranian nuclear drive, at least for a while, to a secondary status. The danger is that this distraction might indeed supersede some of the necessary and effective action that had begun to be taken, in the UN Security Council as well as by international financial institutions and private banks, and seemed to be putting growing pressure on the regime to change course.
Meanwhile, Israel's abducted soldiers, held hostage and without a sign of life in Gaza and Lebanon since the summer of 2006, command much less international attention. True, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did promise, in a state dinner in Jerusalem, to have their dog tags displayed in a prominent place in her office until Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser are back-and went on to raise this as an issue during her controversial visit to Syria. But the response she met with in Damascus was-at best-a polite promise to "do something," and, in effect, a suggestion of mediation (by U.S. Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia?) that would be supportive not only of the abductors' demands for a negotiated solution, but also of Hezbollah's bid to link the two separate negotiations.
As things stand, the ongoing hostage situations serve as a sad illustration of the state of regional and local politics:
* In Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah continues to defy not only any semblance of proper political order (in a meeting with AJC's Executive Committee, the Israeli national security adviser, Ilan Mizrahi, called Hezbollah "a state within a nonstate"), but also the basic international norm of providing access to prisoners of war or, at least, firm proof of their condition. Before Karnit Goldwasser would be allowed to know if her beloved husband is alive and well, Hezbollah demands the release of foul murderers in Israeli custody. What the price might be for the actual return of the abductees-taken, it should be said over and over again, in a raid well within Israeli sovereign territory, an act of piracy and a casus belli by any definition-is not even clear as yet.
* In the case of Gilad Shalit, there are better indications (but no firm evidence) that he is alive. However, the failure of President Mahmoud Abbas to demand, and secure, his release, as a precondition for the creation of a national unity cabinet with Hamas, did much to destroy any prospect of progress during the recent mission in the region of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The rumors are that within Hamas there is a strong radical faction, led by local hotheads who fear that Shalit is their only "card" in the internal power game, which is now blocking all attempts to achieve a breakthrough. Presumably led by "Foreign Minister" Mahmoud al-Zahar (who in one interview advocated that Israel be relocated to Canada) and former Interior Minister Said Siyyam, who presided over the creation of violent Hamas militias in Gaza, they are said to be defying Prime Minster Isma'il Haniya and even the writ of Hamas leader Khalid Mashal. (But this could well be a story Mashal himself and his Syrian hosts are spinning to cover for Hamas's convoluted negotiating tactics and a growing degree of coordination with Hezbollah and Iran.)
* A third situation has now been added. As the captivity of another hostage, Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter abducted in Gaza for money by a local crime clan, continues, the Palestinian journalists have gone on strike to protest the helplessness of their own government. (Where were they when other disastrous actions and provocations were carried out by gangs and groups-and are we to conclude that when Israelis are the target, similar crimes are legitimate, but when aimed against a "friendly" European, they are not?). The inevitable conclusion is that no one among those who presume to be in power in the Palestinian "state-to-be" can produce even the basic semblance of law or order; and dangers lurk in relying upon their future ability to deliver on the larger issues.
The pain persists: In many homes in Israel, a prayer was added to the Passover Seder for the safety and speedy return of Shalit, Regev and Goldwasser, as well as for navigator Ron Arad, for the three missing soldiers from the Sultan Ya'akub battle in 1982, Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Tzvi Feldman, and for another missing soldier, Guy Hever, who disappeared ten years ago in the Golan and some believe is held captive in Syria. At our time of commemorating freedom, their continued captivity is an affront to humanity.
At the very same time, the equally painful questions test the resolve and effectiveness of decision-makers in Israel-and the West: Can the fate of the hostages be used to legitimate Hamas? To extort the release of murderers and to arrange for payoffs to crime and terror groups? To present President Bashar al-Assad in a positive light, while Syria continues to shelter terrorists, support the radicals, and undermine moderate forces in Lebanon? To blunt the edge of confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program? It has never been easy to call it right in such situations: A dove like Jimmy Carter tried the use of force, while a hawk like Ronald Reagan was led down the garden path of arms sales to a murderous regime. Even so, today these decisions, in a region whose future hangs in the balance, are more difficult than ever.