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Now that the British sailors are safely back home and the diplomatic crisis is over, I unfortunately have to describe the saga as a clear victory for Iran. The BBC reviews the facts; here's my interpretation.
Iran established that it can invade Iraqi waters and get away with it simply by claiming that they hadn't. Everyone privately knew that the Iranians were lying, but diplomats and the media were afraid of appearing unreasonable by not taking Iran's claims seriously. By refusing to uphold the facts, they helped Iran to continue the charade.
Lesson: Failure to consistently condemn falsehoods lends them an undeserved legitimacy.
Iran took these hostages for the purpose of diverting attention from its nuclear program, which has continued despite repeated (but predictably weak) demands from the United Nations. Not only did it divert attention, it strengthened Iran's hand: Ahmadinejad got to play the benevolent and understanding leader by announcing the sailors' release, smiling to the cameras as he shook the hostages' hands. This move undercut any strong response the British may have been working on, and the world will remember "how good of Iran to let them go" instead of "Iran was entirely in the wrong for the whole ordeal". Worse, this situation will be used as an example of a "diplomatic success" (because no force was needed to gain the sailors' release) and encourage the false hope that Iran can be negotiated with.
Lesson: If you allow your opponent to control the framing and pacing of events, they will use it to their advantage.
The sailors were mistreated and used for propaganda. I've read convincing arguments (sorry; didn't keep the link) that the Geneva Conventions were violated. The international yawn on this point is telling; there should have been action after the coerced "confession" video. Unfortunately, the Conventions are today used mostly to bludgeon the good and shield the evil, much like the U.N. Human Rights Council. Frameworks and institutions created with noble intent have been gradually corrupted because people let hypocrisy and double standards go unchallenged.
Lesson: Vigilance is required to prevent the tools for good being distorted and used in the service of evil.
From Iran's perspective, the operation was a complete success. They got away with it. I regret that this incident will encourage more in the future.