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There should be nothing surprising about the the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's capture of the 15 British navy personnel. Kidnapping for tactical and strategic gain was an integral part of warfare and diplomacy throughout the Middle Ages, and in certain cultures well into the 20th Century.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the few - if not the only - sovereign countries that still uses abductions as standard procedure, from its inception in 1979 and the taking of American Embassy hostages. The practice is also prevalent among Iran's proxies in the region - the Mahdi Army in Iraq and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
'Iran is fooling no one by parading British captives'
These kidnapings are usually well planned and have clear objectives, such as seizing the embassy hostages to use as a safeguard against US efforts to topple Ayatollah Khomeini's regime.
The capture of enemy soldiers or civilians is a typical tactic of the asymmetrical wars that Iran and it's allies wage, designed to give them a cruel advantage when facing sensitive Western societies.
Hizbullah's capture of IDF soldiers Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev more than eight months ago was carried out to keep the armed struggle on the Israel-Lebanon border alive, justifying their status as an armed militia, a state within a state.
Hizbullah expected a limited operation that would have enabled it to maintain the status quo. Hassan Nasrallah admitted after the war that if he had thought Israel might retaliate with a full-scale war, he wouldn't have ordered the operation.
As hard is might seem for Israelis to believe, Hizbullah lost a great deal of national and international legitimacy last summer. The war was also a failure for them.
Nasrallah could have been excused for miscalculating. Two previous cases, the capture of three soldiers' bodies at Mount Dov and the kidnapping of Elhanan Tannenbaum, delivered handsome dividends in prisoner swaps.
Whatever the purpose of the latest capture on the high seas, it's clear that the Iranians know that to catch the attention of the British public, they have to supply the right pictures for the TV channels and tabloid press, and what's better than a young frightened mother?
On the other hand, when Hizbullah or other Iranian-inspired organizations hold Israeli soldiers, no pictures and no information is released. They know Israel is a small, close-knit society where everyone has a brother, son or is himself in the army. Missing servicemen are a national trauma that the Shi'ites are adept at manipulating.
How can the British keep the Iranians off balance and stop them from achieving their aims? First of all, by acting out of character and not playing this incident down and opting for quiet diplomacy, like they seemed to be doing for the first couple of days of the crisis.
Blair's government has to realize that Iran has a lot of cards in play and has a lot to lose. If the British keep that in mind, they might manage to turn the situation around to the West's benefit.
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