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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trying to Figure Out Just What Iran Wants

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The smaller question raised by Iran's latest provocation -- what does Tehran want with 15 British sailors? -- leads inevitably to the larger one: What does Iran want? There does not appear to be any good answer. The traditional rules of realpolitik do not seem to govern the behavior of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On the face of it, it would seem a poor time for Iran to pick a fight with Britain. Iran is increasingly isolated, having more sanctions to contend with after a unanimous United Nations Security Council vote designed to stop its uranium enrichment program. Its Sunni Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, are talking openly about how to contain its growing power. And the United States is arresting Iranians in Iraq -- accusing Tehran of sending explosives across the border -- and dispatching warships and Patriot missile batteries to the Persian Gulf.

Moreover, Britain is one of Iran's least antagonistic enemies. It joined with France and Germany in offering economic inducements to Tehran to suspend enrichment, when the United States would not agree to do so, and the three European nations remain prepared to offer economic benefits to Iran in exchange for a verifiable suspension.

Iran's refusal to release the captured British sailors despite satellite evidence that they were seized in Iraqi waters has been compounded by its decision to parade them before the cameras for forced confessions and "apologies."

But if Iran's actions are inexplicable, its intentions are inscrutable. If the regime has concluded that international rapprochement is impossible, then its goal may be to mount a show of strength, determination and deterrence against the West, to shore up its domestic support. Attacking the United States would have been stupid and dangerous, but triggering a crisis with a U.S. ally that is already on its way out of Iraq makes life difficult for the Washington while falling short of casus belli.

So could Ahmadinejad's motive simply be to get even with the hostile West? If this is the case, it suggests that this hostage crisis may last weeks or months, as Iran attempts to extract the maximum propaganda value from the innocent British sailors.

Whatever Ahmadinejad's motives, this much is certain: Iran's actions give credence to hawks who view Iran as a rogue state headed by a Holocaust denier who supports terrorism and flouts international norms, whether nuclear or maritime.

This comment appeared as an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.