In the Islamic world, and especially among the Iranian revolutionaries, there is much greater emphasis placed on the abject humiliation of one’s enemies than there is in the West. It is a demonstration of your power and audacity, and of your enemy’s helplessness, regardless of how capable he might appear on paper. Abductions have been one of the pillars of Iranian foreign policy since the 1979 revolution — one of whose first acts was taking hostage the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
This was followed by several years of abductions of Americans by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, by the abduction in 2006 of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and one by Hamas, the abduction and imprisonment of Haleh Esfendiari also in 2006, by the 2007 seizure of 15 British sailors, and so on. After the sailors crisis, celebrated Iranian moderate Mohamad Khatami declared, “Anyone who saw this action as inappropriate has become accustomed to seeing the Islamic and Arab world as weak, as not defending itself from harm.” Or as this idea was articulated in 1981 by Iran’s chief negotiator after the American embassy hostages had finally been released: “We rubbed dirt in the nose of the world’s greatest superpower.”
It is especially interesting that such abductions typically happen at moments of attempted American entente with Iran: Esfendiari was seized three weeks after the Iraq Study Group report recommended engagement, at a moment when calls for negotiations had reached a crescendo. Similarly, the arrest of Roxana Saberi in February occurred a few weeks after President Obama announced on Al-Arabiya his intention to commence diplomacy with Iran in the coming months.
Why does the Iranian regime have such a penchant for abductions? And why are they often timed to follow American announcements of a desire for diplomacy? Because in the eyes of the Islamic revolutionaries, the overthrow of the American-backed shah in 1979 was proof not only of the revolution’s divine ordination, but of America’s weakness and the ease with which the Great Satan could be disgraced. The regime has never paid a price for the provocations that started at our embassy in Tehran — the Marine Corps barracks bombings in Lebanon in 1983, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, its campaign of assassinations and bombings in Europe during the 1980’s, its sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas, etc.
The mullahs, since the earliest days of their rule, have seen almost every act of murder, terrorism, and hostage-taking go unanswered. American passivity has thus vindicated in practical terms one of the revolution’s most important ideological tenets: that the West, and America in particular, is a brittle facade, economically powerful and technologically sophisticated but weak-willed, indecisive, risk-averse, and easily intimidated. The way the Obama administration is handling Iran’s latest provocation — expressing befuddled consternation while taking no action — is a perfect confirmation to the mullahs that America is still a nation worthy of their contempt.