While everyone should be happy that the 15 British servicemen are home from Tehran, it is, perhaps, too early to uncork the bubbly. For the undeclared war that the Islamic Republic has waged against Western democracies since 1979 is far from over. A reminder of this came just as the 15 captives boarded a plane for London, when gunmen linked to Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi cleric working for Tehran, killed four British soldiers in Basra in an ambush.
Why did the mullahs decide to seize the hostages and why did they release them unexpectedly? Hostage-taking has been part of the Islamic Republic's strategy since its inception in 1979. In the first months of its existence, the Khomeinist regime seized and quickly released hundreds of Western hostages. The policy reached a crescendo in November 1979 when Khomeinist "students" raided the US Embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days. Today a German businessman, a Canadian academic and a French researcher are captives of the mullahs.
The seizure of hostages is based on an ancient tradition first practised by early Islamic conquerors. The Arab general Saad Abi Waqqas realised that Muslim fighters were awestruck by the Byzantine soldiers in the early stages of Islamic conquests in the 7th century. He solved the problem by putting captured Byzantine soldiers on show to demonstrate that the "Infidel" were fragile men, not mythical giants.
The mullahs remembered the Abi Waqqas stratagem last summer amid growing rumours of an impending US attack on the Khomeinist regime. Their first aim was to capture some Americans. Last September, they set a trap for a platoon of GIs from the 101st Airborne Division patrolling the Iraqi border with Iran. The Americans had been led into the trap but after an intense shooting match with the Iranian force sent to capture them, they managed to flee to safety.
President Bush's decision to change the rules of engagement for US forces in Iraq with the new "surge" strategy, allowing Americans to kill or capture any Iranian perceived as a threat, made it more difficult for the mullahs to do an Abi Waqqas. As a result, the British, whose rules of engagement prevent them from fighting Iranians even in self-defence, were chosen as the softer target.
By seizing the British almost at the same time as the United Nations Security Council was giving unanimous approval to fresh sanctions against Iran, based on a text written by British diplomats, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad achieved several objectives.
He showed that his regime could heighten tension any time. He told his Revolutionary Guards not to be unnerved by the talk of war with the "Infidel". He enhanced his popularity among Arabs, who now regard him as heir to Nasser, and his dream of wiping Israel off the map. He also used the incident as a smokescreen for a purge of dissidents within the Establishment, putting several prominent figures on trial for "damaging state security".
The seizure of the British naval personnel is the latest episode in a low-intensity war that the Islamic Republic has waged against the West for almost three decades. In this war, Iran has killed hundreds of Western, especially American and French troops, in suicide attacks in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. More recently, its agents have killed at least 200 American troops and an unknown number of British soldiers in Iraq. Its influence against Nato in Afghanistan, against President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and against Lebanon and Israel, through Hezbollah and Hamas, are well known.
So far, the West's response has been timid and occasional. The mullahs play a long-term game, acting as carpet-weavers, knotting one mischief at time, day in and day out. They know that their fragile regime, hated by a majority of Iranians, would not survive a full-scale clash with the West. This is why they deal their poison in small but steady doses, enough to weaken the foe but not too much to mobilise Western opinion in favour of full confrontation.
The debate on what to do about the mullahs hits a deadend because it is limited to two options: regime change or surrender. Those who blame the West for the world's evils urge surrender, in atonement of sins supposedly committed against Iran over centuries. They hope that once the mullahs are given everything, they would start behaving reasonably. This argument ignores the fact that the Khomeinist regime's political DNA would not allow it to act reasonably. A scorpion does not sting because it wants to misbehave but because it is programmed to do so.
When it comes to the regime-change option, the usual suspects who still cry for Saddam Hussein would be up in arms. President Ahmadinejad knows that no American or British leader can garner popular support for preemptive war against Iran.
The alternative, however, is not one of surrender or regime change. The Western democracies could give the Islamic republic a taste of its own medicine — and engage it in the kind of low-intensity warfare that Iran itself indulges in. The mischief must not be cost-free. It would be resisted though diplomatic and economic means as well as through support for the democratic and reformist forces inside Iran. Throughout history, adversaries end up by adopting aspects of each other's strategy.
The Islamic Republic wants a Khomeinist Middle East. The "Infidel" want a democratic, pro-West Middle East. The two visions are incompatible. Eventually, one must win as the other loses. As the British celebrate the return of their hostages they would do well to decide which vision deserves support.