What Iran Wants with the Sailors

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Al-Alam / AP

British navy personnel seized by Iran eat a meal in this television image, March 28, 2007.

The warning sign is now clearer — in retrospect. On Thursday March 22, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei gave a speech pointedly telling the West that if it resorted to lawlessness, Iran would answer in kind. The next morning, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps seized 15 British Marines for allegedly straying into Iranian territorial waters. "The radicals are totally energized by what is going on right now," says a professor of political science in Iran who wishes to remain anonymous because of his ties to government officials. "The moderates have all scattered and gone quiet."

In London, any hope that this was a simple misunderstanding is all but gone. Britain has always insisted that the eight sailors and seven marines were "well inside" Iraqi waters and the Ministry of Defence today released their coordinates as proof. But, in a clear response, Iranian state television broadcast an interview with captured British sailor Faye Turney in which she appears to admit that she and the 14 other servicemen were trespassing. Prime Minister Tony Blair in a statement called the seizure of the British servicemen "completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal." He added: "It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure the Iranian government understands their total isolation on this issue."

But some analysts in Tehran believe it has been the failure of diplomacy that has led to the current standoff. The Iranian leadership believed that restrained diplomacy combined with Russian and Chinese backing at the Security Council would eventually extricate the country from confrontation with the West. "Both those assumptions have failed spectacularly," says Saeed Laylaz, a former government official turned political commentator. "And now Iran is back to its familiar brand of offensive politics. It's behaving like a cornered cat that is ready to lash out."

Laylaz and others say that Tehran's detention of the British marines reflects the growing sense of threat felt by Iranian officials. "The American chokehold — political, economical, and military — is growing tighter and more effective by the day," says Laylaz. The professor of political science agrees. "This is all designed to make Iran feel vulnerable," he says. American maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, and the detention of Iranian envoys to Iraq by the U.S. military, have upset Iran's top military leaders, the professor says, and encouraged them to seek more influence over foreign policy. "They are convinced the U.S. is pursuing a regime-change policy," he said. "And if the U. S. is bent on a military confrontation, the thinking goes, why let the Americans set the timing? We can take the initiative ourselves."

What does Iran want out of the standoff? "Iran is hoping to use these captives as a winning card with the West," says Laylaz. "If it releases them, it expects to be appreciated and rewarded for its good behavior. If it holds on to them, it will retain leverage."

The British are not amused at being so leveraged. In a statement to the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett announced that, on top of the stiffer U.N. sanctions agreed last Saturday, Britain will halt all other bilateral relations with Iran until the sailors and marines are released. "No one should be in any doubt about the seriousness with which we regard these events," she declared.

Iranians say that seizure of the Marines has raised the tension in the Persian Gulf to a level not seen since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. However, few insiders in the Tehran regime expect a full-blown confrontation with the West. Says Laylaz: "The worst that's being imagined is an oil installation or two being hit."

What is more ominous internally is that the government may use the crisis to crack down on domestic opposition to its brand of nuclear diplomacy. In an interview posted on the website of the state-owned newspaper Hamshahri, Minister of Information Mohsen Ejei warned that the activities of "domestic agents of the enemy" had not gone undetected by the government. Said Ejei: "The enemy is presently trying, with the aid of its domestic agents and fifth column inside the country, to wage psychological warfare." Some Iranians are probably hoping the Marines will be freed quickly.