British Prisoner Crisis: A Dangerous Game of Power and Propaganda

By Dieter Bednarz, Hans Hoyng, Georg Mascolo and Bernhard Zand

Is it a local border conflict or the beginning of a dangerous confrontation? In the drama surrounding the 15 captured British sailors, Tehran is resorting to propaganda while London is relying on the West for support. Iran has a long history of using hostages as diplomatic pawns.

Members of the group of 15 detained British sailors are shown on Iranian television after media report that the whole group admitted to entering Iranian waters illegally.
REUTERS

Members of the group of 15 detained British sailors are shown on Iranian television after media report that the whole group admitted to entering Iranian waters illegally.

Rarely is an Arab League summit more than a collection of 22 men on somewhat frosty terms issuing meaningless statements.

But that wasn't the case last week in Riyadh, where what Saudi Arabian King Abdullah had to say to his "honorable brothers" sounded more like a lecture to the entire Middle East. "In wounded Palestine, the mighty people suffer from oppression and occupation," the monarch said. "In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war. Lebanon is virtually paralyzed. In Sudan the weakness of the Arabs has led to foreign intervention, and in Somalia one civil war is ending, but only so that the next one can begin."

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora began to nod, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani stopped eating chocolates. Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rigid pharaoh-like face suddenly perked up.

Here was an old man talking about war and peace, about the crises of a part of the world that has come unhinged. And although he did not go easy on his brothers, assigning much of the blame to the Arab world's leaders, they supported him and revived the Beirut Declaration, the most comprehensive Arab proposal to date for peace in the Middle East.

But hardly anyone outside Riyadh was paying attention to the summit, overshadowed as it was by yet another crisis in the Gulf, when Iranian Revolutionary Guards detained 15 British sailors in the waters off the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab River. According to the Iranians, the troops of the British Crown, who had been deployed to protect Iraq's terminals, were apprehended in Iraqi waters.

Gradual escalation

Like the screenplay of some political thriller, the conflict gradually escalated. On Wednesday Iran aired images of the British sailors eating a meal, with female sailor Faye Turney in the foreground. On Thursday London appealed to the United Nations Security Council to deplore Iran's actions. Instead, it expressed "grave concern." British Prime Minister Tony Blair was quick to register his "disgust" with the Iranians' parading of his country's sailors on television. He had frozen his government's relations with Tehran the day before.

Who pulls the strings in Iran
DER SPIEGEL

Who pulls the strings in Iran

On Sunday about 200 Iranian students threw firecrackers and bricks into the British embassy compound. On Monday Iranian television showed fresh footage of the naval personnel, saying they had all admitted to entering Iran illegally. But Tehran's tone appeared to soften as Iranian television said it had detected a shift in British policy that could help resolve the crisis.

Ali Larijani, the Iranian national security advisor, criticized London's alarmism and called it "stupid and misplaced" -- as if hostage taking hasn't already been a hallmark of Tehran's foreign policy for decades. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanded an "apology." London, for its part, threatened Iran with more than just diplomatic action if it did not promptly release the British hostages. The markets, the most important seismograph when it comes to earthquakes on the international political front, reacted immediately, and the oil price began creeping back up to the $70 level.

In the past this would have been enough to start a war, with one power provoking and another being forced to take action -- if only to avoid losing face. In the last century, the game the Iranians were playing with the British at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab would have been a classic maneuver designed to produce one outcome: war.

But things are different today, and now the question is whether the case of the 15 British sailors can be negotiated away as a border dispute between two medium-sized powers.

Or has the underlying conflict -- the West's fear of Iran's nuclear program -- already gone too far for moderates on both sides to be able to prevent escalation?

Anti-riot police sit under the score board during a soccer match between Esteghlal and Perspolisat at the Azadi stadium in Tehran March 30, 2007.
REUTERS

Anti-riot police sit under the score board during a soccer match between Esteghlal and Perspolisat at the Azadi stadium in Tehran March 30, 2007.

The diplomatic struggle began at the Riyadh summit. In addition to the 22 Arab heads of state, King Abdullah had invited four other prominent statesmen to Riyadh: Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Mottaki in particular was urged to ease the situation. Erdogan asked him to at least allow the Turks consular access to the captured sailors. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari insisted that the British patrol boats had never left Iraqi waters. The Saudis and Ban Ki-moon also tried to change Mottaki's mind, but their efforts have been unsuccessful so far.

"Ominous confrontation" taking shape

"The Middle East," Ban Ki-moon told the Arab leaders, "is more complex, more fragile and more dangerous than it has been for a very long time." Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf warned: "tensions in the Gulf region are shaping an ominous confrontation that could have incalculable consequences globally, regionally and among the Muslim Umma (faithful)."

The impasse comes at a time when it seemed that the adversaries in the region were on the verge of giving diplomacy a chance. The United States and Iran had declared their willingness to join other neighbors in an effort to negotiate a solution to the mess in Iraq. A preparatory meeting of ambassadors in Baghdad in early March is to be followed by a mid-April conference at the ministerial level in either Istanbul or Kuwait. That meeting could signal the beginning of a negotiating marathon that could end -- as it did in the cases of Libya and North Korea -- in a major settlement.

But things are clearly different in the case of Iran. The abduction of Britain's sailors could well have been the Iranians' way of responding to threats from the United States, Blair's closest ally.

The White House has been deliberately sending out targeted pinpricks designed to unsettle the leadership in Tehran. "The Iranians have a belligerent, loud and dangerous government that is seeking confrontation with the rest of the world," US President George W. Bush said in February, commenting on the men working for his adversary, Ahmadinejad. "Our goal is to keep up the pressure so that reasonable people can come to the fore." The threats were followed by a military buildup in the Gulf and US troops taking aggressive action against Iranians in Iraq.

US Special Forces units hunted down Iranian Revolutionary Guards who had infiltrated Iraq. The Americans believe that these units are in Iraq for the sole purpose of training Shiite death squads. Dozens of Iranians were arrested, and five are still in detention today.

Some of the Iranians arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil are said to be high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards, including General Mohammad Djafari Sahraroudi, a man who is wanted by Interpol for his role in the murder of Iranian Kurd dissidents in Vienna in 1989.

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