WASHINGTON - If the administration of US
President George W Bush is paying attention, the
drama over the 15 British sailors and marines,
whose release by Iran after 12 days of detention
was announced in Tehran on Wednesday, was designed
to convey two key messages, according to experts
First, the initial capture
of the Britons by Revolutionary Guards near the
entry to the disputed Shatt-al-Arab waterway was meant
demonstrate that, despite its conventional
military weakness and diplomatic isolation, Iran
retains the ability to strike at Western interests
when it feels sufficiently provoked.
Second, when Western powers engage Iran
with respect and as an equal, they are more likely
to get what they want than when they take a
confrontational path designed to bully or
humiliate the regime.
Neither message is
likely to be well received either at the White
House or among the neo-conservative and other
right-wing pundits who have tried hard to depict
the incident as the latest sign of Islamic or
Persian barbarism. Properly understood, however,
the messages could form the basis of a new
approach capable of yielding still greater
results, according to Juan Cole, a regional expert
at the University of Michigan.
British have now opened a channel," he said.
"Although this incident really did constitute a
crisis - one that might have escalated to very
dangerous levels - the resolution was diplomatic,
and that diplomatic resolution could contain the
seeds for future diplomacy, if the British and the
Americans are so inclined."
announcement that the sailors were being released
in honor of the Prophet Mohammed's forthcoming
birthday and the Christian Easter holiday was made
by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who then met with
the captives personally.
has pardoned them; it is a gift from our people,"
he said, adding that the gesture had "nothing to
do" with Tuesday's release in Iraq of a senior
Iranian diplomat who was abducted two months ago
reportedly by a special Iraqi intelligence agency
that works closely with the US Central
Intelligence Agency. "We approached the subject on
a humanitarian basis. It was a unilateral decision
on our end," he insisted.
diplomat's release, as well as reports that Tehran
also just received assurances that it will be
given consular access to five alleged
Revolutionary Guards seized by US forces at an
Iranian liaison office in Irbil nearly three
months ago, suggest that Wednesday's events were
more than just coincidence, although both London
and Washington, like Ahmadinejad, insist there
were no quids pro quo.
personally believe that the US action [in Irbil]
... accounts for why Iran chose to stage its
capture of the British sailors," said Gary Sick,
an Iran expert at Columbia University who served
in the White House under president Jimmy Carter.
"Iran appears to have gained something from its
That assessment was
shared by Trita Parsi, president of the US
National Iranian American Council. "By taking the
[British] soft targets, the Iranians put pressure
on the US."
In addition to collecting
bargaining chips, the original capture had other
purposes, including rallying nationalist sentiment
behind the regime just as it faced the imposition
by the United Nations Security Council of a new
round of sanctions for rejecting demands to
suspend its uranium-enrichment program.
important, however, was the message Tehran wished
to convey to the West that it could indeed respond
to what it saw as US provocations in ways that
could harm or embarrass its allies.
seizing the Iranians, who, after all, had been
invited by the Iraqi authorities, the Americans
were seen as behaving aggressively," said Cole.
"Now the Iranians have demonstrated that the
Anglo-American forces are not in a strong enough
position to afford to do these things. They can
Sick agreed: "It is a
reminder that Iran has quite an array of
asymmetrical options available to it to counter
indirectly the actions of the US forces in Iraq
At the same time,
according to Sick, Tehran's behavior during much
of the crisis - including both the seizure itself,
the precise location of which remains a matter of
dispute, and its use of "confessions" by the
British captives and threats to put them on trial
- will probably have cost it much-needed
"I suspect that
recognition of this fact accounts for Iran's
desire to end this dispute as promptly as
possible," said Sick. "For the same reason, I
suspect that this ploy will not be repeated any
Parsi said: "I think the
Iranians thought it was better to declare victory
and put an end to the crisis before there was any
At the same time,
however, Parsi and other analysts said the point
at which victory could be declared was reached
because of important changes in the British
approach to the crisis.
have said the turning point came on Monday, when
Ali Larijani, the Iranian national security
adviser, gave a conciliatory interview to
Britain's Channel Four television - an interview
that was followed up the next day with a critical
conversation between Larijani and British Prime
Minister Tony Blair's top foreign-policy adviser,
Sir Nigel Sheinwald, according to The Independent.
However, Cole pointed to a shift in the British
stance from one of threats and demands to a more
diplomatic approach over the weekend, including
confirmation by British Defense Secretary Des
Browne that London was "in direct bilateral
communication with the Iranians".
sorts of incidents are always to some extent about
face, and apparently the Iranians felt that when
Britain agreed to enter into direct bilateral
negotiations, Iran had gained enough face to be
magnanimous," Cole said. "On Sunday, they were
admitted as equals, not scolded as little
children. That created the opening for [Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khameini and Ahmadinejad to
climb down and save face."
an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota,
said: "Iranians have been signaling repeatedly,
and not just during this crisis, that they will
engage diplomatically, but without preconditions
and on the basis of equality. So now they say,
'You see, when we have the upper hand, you see how
magnanimous we are; we are a charitable, civilized
people. We are reasonable. You can talk with us.'"
Parsi said: "The Iranian message is that
if you deal with us respectfully, through
incentives, then things can get resolved rather
quickly. If you only resort to force or impose
sanctions at the UN Security Council, then you'll
only get stuck, and Iran will respond in kind.
They're hoping that the West gets the impression
that that is the incentive structure through which
it can make progress with Iran. Whether that will
be understood in the West is obviously a complete
administration's relative silence during the
crisis may also have conveyed, inadvertently
perhaps, another message - that, despite
widespread speculation that its recent military
buildup in the Persian Gulf is intended to prepare
the grounds for an attack on Iran, it has no wish
to do so, at least for the moment.
Iranian capture of 15 [British] military personnel
could certainly have been used as ... a pretext
[for a military strike], since it could easily
have escalated to a full-fledged military crisis,"
said Sick. "I regard the absence of unbridled
escalation in this case as a significant indicator
that the US desire for a strike may be more muted
than it has been portrayed."