The Royal Navy's decision to let its personnel sell stories of their failed military operation beggars ever more belief. Even the most ardent student of government openness must wonder at the thought processes involved. The navy may no longer rule the waves, but it waives the rules when it sees the glint of money. Last night it appeared to admit it was wrong, or at least a minister did. Are any of these people really in charge of British military operations?
Having just had a ship, HMS Cornwall, involved in an apparently mishandled incident, silence and a return to base was surely the best policy. Having had 15 sailors - some of them young and clearly unable to handle themselves - captured and "turned", the less publicity the better. Having accused the Iranians of exploiting them for propaganda, why stand open to the identical charge? Having abused the Iranians for treating a woman differently, why treat her differently, allowing her to make a fortune from a "controlled" interview?
Nor is that all. After a rescue involving British and American diplomats in a delicate operation that balanced guilt, pride, nods and winks, what conceivable gain lay in reopening the wound? Why generate headlines bound to contain the words ordeal, rape, knickers, mock execution and "poisonous dwarf"? Starve the story of oxygen and it would have died in a week. What was likely to be the reaction of other services, which are enduring far greater losses and privations than the navy in Iraq? They are actually getting killed. What is "My Ordeal" for £100,000 against that? Every member of the navy press office should be fired.
Last night the defence secretary, Des Browne, acknowledged that the decision had "not reached a satisfactory outcome". The review of procedures ordered by the MoD now must ask whether in future every soldier's tale of derring-do, which might be more saleable than yesterday's unedifying memoir, is up for media bids on return to base. A lucrative precedent has been set. And what of the safety of future hostages taken by the Iranians in this tit-for-tat war? How will the navy's hamfisted adventure into chequebook journalism have helped their plight? Presumably the Iranians will want a cut.
We are told that the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) was operating freelance in taking the sailors hostage. It had just seen five of its number captured in Iraq. It is an enemy of the moderates looking to reopen lines to the west, and is eager for a nuclear capability. The IRGC was reportedly out to humiliate Iran's diplomats and technocrats and ensure there would be no backsliding on nuclear enrichment.
A Tehran "Londonologist" might be tempted to see the Royal Navy in a similar light. Bruised by operational failure, desperate to preserve its costly nuclear missiles from political attack and humiliated by the capture of its sailors, it was burning with resentment against the Foreign Office, the Iranians, Gordon Brown's Treasury and the whole Labour establishment. It would show its muscle by setting the tabloids loose in the political china shop. How else to explain such a decision by the mad mullahs of the quarterdeck?
As long as the Iraq occupation continues, Iran is bound to treat Britain and the US as hostile intruders. The west is fighting counterinsurgency wars on Iran's eastern and western borders. Iranian politics is awash with sympathisers for the insurgents. Moderate leadership is blighted by daily atrocities to coreligionists in and around Baghdad. While Tehran has no interest in the Taliban in Afghanistan, it has emotional and religious attachment to the Shia cause in Iraq. No government can stand aloof from the invasion and occupation of a neighbouring state by a foreign power. To expect otherwise of Iran is naive.
Hence the one silver lining that might have emerged from the affair of the captive 15. As a result of the efforts required to free them, some new points of contact might have been opened with those in Tehran who want their country to come in from the cold. Iran is too big, proud, rich and unpredictable a nation to be susceptible to the usual neoconservative swagger. Whatever the import of President Ahmadinejad's boast yesterday, it is clearly on the brink of acquiring substantial nuclear capability. It is not another petty Muslim state of the sort that features in the crusader fantasies of George Bush, Tony Blair and their circle. If ever Blair hoped to carry his "western values agenda" on a white charger to the gates of Tehran, that hope vanished in the mire of Iraq.
The normal hawkish responses are inoperable in the case of Iran. This is a nation of 70 million people. Bombing would be useless. Invading would be madness. A quarter century of international quarantine has not brought down the ayatollahs. It has probably strengthened them by weakening the mercantile class and so lengthening the odds on a return to a more open, secular democracy. Meanwhile the invasion of Iraq has removed Saddam and offered Iran the mantle of anti-western leadership in the region, which it has eagerly accepted.
In other words, America's policy of ostracism, containment and regime change has been counterproductive. There is no "military solution" to Iran or to its nuclear facilities. But that does not make it any less dangerous or its activities any less a concern to the west. It means only that other influences must be brought to bear. The Iranian economy is in such trouble that tighter sanctions from Europe did probably play a part in the hostage release. Ahmadinejad and his clerical sponsors are under pressure from inflation, unemployment and the threat of petrol rationing. They must still fight and win elections and keep a wary eye on the Tehran mob. Iran is not a wholly closed society any more than it is a wholly monolithic dictatorship.
As the west desperately attempts to extricate itself from its policies in the region, constructive engagement with Iran makes the only sense. This means the sticks and carrots, give-and-take, soft-cop, hard-cop that constitutes modern coercive diplomacy. In a region of raging instability Iran is the one country with which the west cannot afford not to do business. The job of diplomacy is to ensure that Iran's power brokers see that they have a similar interest.
One difference between war and diplomacy is that the first is easy and the second hard. Iran is going to be very hard. But why then did Des Browne allow the Royal Navy to smack Iran about the head just when this incident desperately needed closure?