It's hard to believe it was strictly a coincidence: On Tuesday Iraq and America freed an Iranian "diplomat" they had been holding, and the next day Iran turned around and announced it would release the 15 royal marines it had been holding hostage. Whether there was a connection was the question on everyone's mind yesterday. Ann Compton of ABC News put it directly to Vice President Cheney in an interview touching on the royal marines. "Do you think there was any quid pro quo for their release?" she asked. "I don't know," Mr. Cheney responded. It was an interesting response, given that Mr. Cheney presumably has access to a lot of information about this sort of thing and that if he had wanted to deny flatly that there had been a quid pro quo, he could have answered, "no."
The vice president went on to give his reasoning — sound reasoning, in our view — why a quid pro quo would be bad policy. "If you get into the business where you reward that kind of behavior, there will be more of that kind of behavior," Mr. Cheney said. "Once people start taking hostages, or kidnapping folks on the high seas, and then are rewarded for it by getting some kind of political concession or some other thing of value, that would be unfortunate."
So while most everyone is glad the hostages will apparently be returning home alive to their families in Great Britain, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Iranians try nabbing some more Western hostages the next time they want something from our side. The fact that only one Iranian appears to have been exchanged for 15 Britons is not much of a consolation. It could mean that the Iranians will internalize the 15 to one ratio and seize 75 Westerners to try to win the release of another five of their agents caught in Iraq. Or it could mean that even more Western concessions were part of a deal whose outlines will only emerge in full detail over the coming days and weeks.
Iran is one topic on which we find ourselves, strangely enough, agreeing with "the private view of senior Saudi officials," who, according to a fascinating dispatch by Karen Elliot House in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, believe that Iran is "now led by a madman," who "seeks nuclear weapons to create an apocalyptic event that he believes would bring the ‘final days' and the return of the Twelfth Imam, whom Shia Muslims believe has been alive but concealed since 874. His return, they believe, will herald the defeat of the enemies of Shia Islam, which include not only Christians and Jews but also Sunni Muslims."
The Twelfth Imam hasn't yet surfaced publicly, and these columns do not count themselves enemies of Shia Islam. But we find it hard to read a quid pro quo of any sort in the case of the royal marines as anything but a defeat for the Atlantic alliance and a win for the madman. Perhaps once the marines have returned home safely, Prime Minister Blair will turn his thoughts to working with his allies to make the kidnappers pay a heavy price.