What do you think ? Why there must be sackings over Iran By MAX HASTINGS - This was a public relations coup to make Richard Branson's campaigns for Virgin seem amateur stuff. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has replaced Saddam Hussein at the summit of George Bush and Tony Blair's list of public enemies. Yet this week, he transformed himself into Santa Claus while Britain was left looking ridiculous. On Tuesday, we were gloomily preparing for a long round of cat-and-mouse, warned to expect as much from our caravanning Foreign Secretary, Mrs Margaret Beckett. Suited and booted: the sailors held captive for 13 days leave Tehran wearing clothes given to them by their Iranian captors But on Wednesday there was a flash of light: Ahmadinejad whisked away the curtain. Behold, he returned our people to us with a beaming smile and cringe-making expressions of thanks from the prisoners. The denouement was reminiscent of those sham executions which dictators love. Tie your victims to stakes, march in the firing squad, load rifles with much clattering of bolts - then laugh heartily and tell the condemned they are let off. That is how monsters get gratitude. It is horrible, it is barbaric, and it works. Just in case you were tempted to suppose that Ahmadinejad is an Easter bunny, take note of the four British soldiers blown to pieces in Basra yesterday. Almost certainly, the bomb which killed them was made in Iran, with its president's eager encouragement. His profession of friendship is the smile on the face of the tiger. What's more, there were the chilling images of crowds celebrating the deaths and gleefully holding up the helmet of one of the victims. Everybody in Britain is relieved that we have got back our 15 sailors and Marines. Almost no one outside their families, however, is in a mood to celebrate. It scarcely matters whether Tony Blair has struck a secret bargain with Iran, as his old friend Silvio Berlusconi so often did to retrieve Italian prisoners from terrorists. As a nation, whatever the terms or lack of them, this tawdry business has cost us dignity and respect around the world. In its wake, we must learn vital lessons and attribute blame where it is due. First, the Royal Navy has blundered. It seems unlikely that Commodore Nick Lambert, the local commander off Iraq, will gain promotion to admiral, or deserve to. A board of inquiry will examine what happened. To prevent a naval whitewash, this should include independent representation. Blame must go higher than the Commodore. The patrol which was captured operated under procedures and rules of engagement agreed by much more senior officers. A soldier with recent Iraq experience said to me this week: 'In Basra, we have been fighting a proxy war with the Iranians for years. What was the Navy thinking about, trailing its coat within reach of their patrol boats, as if they were out for a Sunday ride?' The British Army is thoroughly attuned to operating in a combat environment. The Navy is not. In the nature of its role, most sailors - like the RAF - work not uncomfortable routines and scarcely suffer a casualty from one year to the next. They belong to the Armed Forces but have little experience of fighting anybody. This is why there is a strong case for ensuring that the Chief of Defence Staff is always a soldier. We should abandon the nonsense of rotating the top job among the three services. Our services need leadership at the top, from people who understand what fighting forces are about, as few modern sailors and airmen do. Some naval heads must roll for the Iranian fiasco. It will not do merely to let officers "retire with honour" at the end of their present postings. When a fiasco of this magnitude takes place in any walk of life, those responsible must not only be sacked, they must be seen to be sacked. Plenty has already been said about the embarrassing behaviour of our captives in Iranian hands. I do not for a moment believe that they were either tortured or brainwashed, whatever that means. Most likely, they simply said what they thought would get them released. "If only they hadn't rolled over so quickly," as an army officer said to me ruefully. The prisoners' public demeanour was pitiful, and sorely damaging to the image of Britain's armed forces. President Ahmadinejad spoke patronisingly when he suggested that Ms Faye Turney should have stayed at home with her small child rather than sailed with the British navy, but he had a point. If Turney is to get special sympathy for being the first to grovel on Iranian TV, because she is a mother, then she supports Ahmadinejad's cheap jibe. Many of us have always been highly sceptical about the notion of women in the front line. We are even more so today, after witnessing the humiliation of poor Faye Turney. I hope that even in Blair's Britain, there will be no question of giving medals to any of the captives. They may deserve our pity, but they do not command our respect. In this country today, we find it more and more difficult to distinguish between heroes, who make some voluntary sacrifice, and victims, who merely endure involuntary experiences. The captives were victims, no more and no less. They have suffered a very unpleasant and frightening ordeal. If they were unready to accept such risks, however, they should have chosen employment at Tesco rather than in a fighting service. You will remember all that stuff about the wartime heroines of Special Operations Executive, captured by the Germans: "They died without revealing anything." After the Iranian episode, nobody will "carve with pride" the names of the Royal Navy or Royal Marine personnel involved. Of course they said what they said on Iranian TV under duress. They were only pretending. But heroic they were not. All the above, however, is small potatoes, concerning the little people caught up in the story. The important lessons concern the big things, and the big people responsible for them. What do we do next about Iran? And about Iraq, which is why our naval patrol was on the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway in the first place. Iran will continue to pose acute difficulties for the West, and especially for the British Government. For many months ahead, any friendly noise which London might make towards Tehran, any hint at sympathetic engagement, will cause the world to say: this is payback for letting out Britain's hostages. Yet Blair, and soon Gordon Brown, will have to swallow those taunts, and keep talking anyway. There is no credible military option for destroying Iran's nuclear programme, nor for forcing it to abandon its commitment to international terrorism. Only diplomacy, backed by economic carrot and stick, may eventually persuade this violently emotional, erratic society to join a rational universe. It is just possible that some crumb of good will come of the hostage release. President Ahmadinejad may be sufficiently delighted with his media triumph to perceive new merit in parleying with the West. Unfortunately, however, he and his government have a long record of mendacity and duplicity. Again and again, they have made promises, then shamelessly broken them. Their determination to build nuclear weapons seems irrevocable. Their commitment to promoting the destruction of Israel is etched into their modern experience. Their only claims upon the world's attention and respect derives from their oil, and their ability to wreak death and destruction. So long as this remains true, we must expect more bloody mischief at their hands. A long, stony road lies ahead. The price of Bush and Blair's catastrophe in neighbouring Iraq is that we have precious little ammunition left - literally or figuratively - to confront Iran. We must haggle with the Iranians, because we cannot fight them. Finally, of course, there is Iraq. Whatever temporary military successes Bush's troop "surge" are achieving, there is now no doubt that the game is over, and lost. The Iraqi government, its institutions and security forces, are quite incapable of assuming responsibility for the country within an acceptable time frame. Chaos and misery lie ahead. The truth is that Bush and Blair are concerned only with postponing an admission of defeat until they have quit office, no matter how many new corpses are created along the way. Some of us have long argued that Iraq's fate will be the same, whether we leave in five weeks or five years. Almost certainly the right course - the one Bush and Blair never choose - is to go now. We have lost the battle to create a new world in the Middle East by force of arms. The seizure of our sailors and Marines, our manifest dependence on Iranian whim to liberate them, was one small demonstration of impotence. In Iraq, the follies of the US and British governments have laid bare the weakness of armed forces which once seemed invincible. Hence-forward, we shall have to talk our way towards an accommodation with the rogue states of the Middle East, and desperately difficult this will be. Iran's wily and dangerous President Ahmadinejad will spend a much happier Easter than George Bush and Tony Blair deserve to.