Fifteen British sailors are safely back home, after two weeks in Iranian captivity - a happy ending which in itself should please anyone who deplored their unjust detention in the first place and all the grist their seizure provided for Teheran's propaganda mill. Exasperatingly, however, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohorts have managed to come out looking good, despite their out-and-out act of piracy, intimidation and unlawful imprisonment. In the end, instead of being held accountable for the crime of abduction, they benefit from the massive sigh of relief heaved in London and across Europe. Given the track record of the ayatollahs' regime, things could have been far worse. The fact that the impasse was resolved so quickly (in comparison, for instance, to the 1979 hostage crisis, the 14-month imprisonment of the American Embassy staff, in which then young radical Ahmadinejad reportedly was the ringleader) ironically inspired expressions of gratitude for Iran's perceived moderation this time. Astutely and cynically, Ahmadinejad exploited his crime to its maximum worth, posturing as the very embodiment of magnanimity, generosity of spirit and fair-mindedness. By the time his captives were paraded in front of him, shaking his hand and thanking him for not torturing them or locking them up indefinitely, wily Ahmadinejad had elicited a British promise not to invade his territorial waters, something which he could claim as an admission that he had legal cause to hold the sailors. London might not have pleaded guilty to his charges, but from the Iranian perspective, the UK emerged as humiliated. Posing the 15 in ill-fitting civilian outfits (including a headscarf for the female detainee), parading them like appreciative schoolchildren and coaching them to wave good-bye to the caring leader (who also awarded them trinkets and sweets) was meant to mock and degrade while simultaneously bolstering the sham of beneficence. It was deliberately demeaning, not only for the individuals involved but also for their country. Ahmadinejad underscored the indignity by depicting the release as "a gift" from the Iranian people on the occasion of Easter and the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. He thus postured as exuding excessive goodwill towards undeserving recipients of his compassion. Despots, of course, always have evinced and continue to evince a penchant for such disingenuous pageantry. Ahmadinejad isn't the first autocrat to force hapless hostages to play act and give praise for what is falsely presented as kindness. From Hitler and Stalin and all the way down to Saddam Hussein, such deceptions have abounded. The world only saw through the pretense when it wanted to. In all too many instances, democracies preferred facile options to convince themselves that the humane facade betokened evidence of hidden good in the darkest tyrannies. The danger of such self-deception now as well is palpable. As Iran's burgeoning nuclear ambitions literally imperil civilization, it may be tempting to find escape in wishful thinking. As Iran actively provokes unrest throughout the Mideast, aggressively promotes terrorism or destabilizes rival regimes, there is lulling appeal in the trust that it can after all behave with pragmatism and restraint. Yet a wolf is most treacherous in sheep's clothing and a ruthless enemy is most misleading when it dons a fallaciously pleasant mask. Iran's true face is most unmistakably exposed in the cases of the three yet unreleased Israeli abductees. Gilad Schalit has been held for ransom by Hamas kidnappers in Gaza since last June. Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are in Hizbullah hands in Lebanon since July. All unequivocally were snatched from Israel's side of the border in outright belligerent attacks in which other soldiers were killed by ambushers. Both Hamas and Hizbullah are Iranian-sponsored and controlled. Not only are the three still not free - without handshakes and candy packets - but they are unaccounted for. Their agonized families haven't received as much as a sign of life. Although this inconceivable cruelty doesn't seem to trouble the world much beyond obligatory sporadic lip-serve, the treatment of these three Israelis is the real litmus-test of Ahmadinejad's intent. The free world's challenge is not to be hoodwinked by his honeyed blandishments, and critically not to let his regime's duplicitous magnanimity in resolving its own act of piracy divert attention from the Iranian nuclear threat.