Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Difference Between a Detainee and a Hostage

I've argued before that Iranian president Ahmadinejad believes an American or Israeli strike on Iran would be in his interest because his domestic support is flagging and a strike would rally the country around him.

Now Iran has seized 15 British sailors and Marines. The UK claims its people were two miles inside Iraqi waters when they were taken; Iran claims they were 500 yards inside Iranian waters at the time. Even if you believe Iran (I don't), you have to ask: why are they holding these people? It's been nearly a week. What is Iran getting out of it?

England is ratcheting up its rhetoric and today froze all bilateral business with Iran. So far, I haven't seen references from the British government to hostages, and the omission of the word is of course deliberate. The government is trying to avoid inflaming public opinion. I don't know what language the British press is using, but the Wall Street Journal referred to "Tehran's Hostages" in an editorial on Monday.

If Iran holds these British captives much longer, or explicitly attempts to exchange their freedom for British concessions, the world will (correctly) begin to refer to them as "hostages." British public opinion will be inflamed. Public opinion in America, which had its own unpleasant, and emotionally unfinished, experience with hostages in Iran, will follow suit.

I've argued that the Bush administration has its own political motives for wanting to attack Iran. Now the mullahs are offering an opportunity. Either the mullahs are exceedingly stupid, or they know full well that motive + opportunity = action.

That question again: If both the mullahs and the Bush administration believe they'll gain politically from an American attack on Iran, how likely is it that the attack will happen?


BOS_TWR said...

Barry, typo?

Cecond to last paragraph. Do you mean to mention Iran instead of Iraq?

Understandable Freudian slip, however.

Anonymous said...

The military and political sciences classes I've taken all categorized military personnel captured by other military personnel as "captured personnel" or, at the very least, "detained persons." Just a matter of semantics (except for the classification "prisoner of war") when you break it down. Legal wording regarding the capture of military personnel is tricky, particularly if combatants captured are not uniformed, or even part of any formal armed service (or what if they are part of some country's armed service, but taking part in unconventional warfare?). Fun, fun stuff to wrangle with.

This latest incident (something similar happened to the British in 2004) does draw plenty of similarities to the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979. The only differences were the Iranians had much less a pretext to take the embassy then and they took mostly diplomatic personnel hostage, and some military. Seriously, read Mark Bowden's book "Guests of the Ayatolah". The stated and official reasons for invading the embassy amounted to less than hogwash.

Rick said...

I agree...I think Ahmadinejad would love for us to invade his country. The economy there is failing, inflation is at 30%+ and many people who elected him feel betrayed. Not only would a U.S. strike rally support for him, but it would also rally Muslim support from other nations.

I'm dreading an attack on Iran but I also think it's coming unless this administration gets its head on straight.

JD Rhoades said...

Will the war-weary American public back another war with a fresh enemy over 15 British seamen?

We think not.

aaron said...

That question again: If both the mullahs and the Bush administration believe they'll gain politically from an American attack on Iran, how likely is it that the attack will happen?

It depends. Does Congress have the clout, and the will to stop it? Particularly given that the circumstances you describe in this question (Bush admin. believes it to be politically beneficial) would most probably (IMO) engender the same belief in Congress. Is there a possible situation contrary to that? That is, where the Bush folks would gain, but the majority of Congress would lose?

Congress would have to actively, and concertedly, act against the Bush admin. to stop action (or so it seems to me.) Could they, would they? I am curious myself!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about this. My husband and I were just discussing this last night. I referered to them as "hostages" and he refered to them as "prisoners." The differences are subtle, but the wording hugely important. Thanks.

David Terrenoire said...

There is a rising opposition to Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in Iran.

If the Bush administration miscalculates again and sees that as a green light to military action, they will try to sell us. I don't think they'll be successful unless there's another terrorist attack on our soil or they manufacture another Gulf of Tonkin incident.

If they do attack Iran, all it will do is solidify the Iranians against us. Then we're well and truly screwed.

Anonymous said...

It's worthwhile to try to track what Iranian, Middle Eastern and North African bloggers are saying about the present crisis. I recommend Global Voices: Iran for a collection and summary of blogs from that part of the world.

Barry, on a separate issue, when can we expect your next paperback?

Barry Eisler said...

Christopher, thanks for the link. As for the Last Assassin paperback, June 6 is the big day. Yes, that's two weeks after the new hardback comes out. Long story...


Anonymous said...

JD Rhoades said...
Will the war-weary American public back another war with a fresh enemy over 15 British seamen?

We think not.

Then tell me why us britons should continue to support you with that attitude. We, as a nation always back the states, but the states has refused to help us defend our territories in the past, even telling us not to defend them ourselves - the falklands. What would you say if wetold you to do the same if one of somebody invaded US sovereign territory?
I for one believe that we are the closest allies in the western hemisphere and should continue to stay that way. Most other nations refused to help you recently, but as always, we were there - right beside you. I should know, after all I'm in the british forces, have been to war in support of the US recently, and have lost a few personal friends and more colleagues in recent conflicts in support of the US.

JD, two questions:
1.) we'd help you, as proven in the past, so why such an attitude towards us?
2.) Are you now or have you ever been in the forces in time of war? (maybe you should ask their opinions rather than just go off half cocked).