What Message Was Iran Sending?

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UPI / Landov

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a press conference where he announced that Iran would release 15 British sailors and marines it had held captive, April 4, 2007.

Already facing U.N. sanctions and speculation about a U.S. attack over its nuclear program, Iran's capture of 15 British sailors and marines on March 23 had the makings of a new Middle East crisis that could spin dangerously out of control. So, Tehran's decision to free the captives in what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called a "gift to the British people" was a notable victory for Iranian pragmatists over hard-liners — one that could even build momentum within Tehran's power structure and in Western capitals for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran's uranium-enrichment program.

Iran claimed it had arrested the Britons for illegally entering Iranian waters, a charge London hotly disputed. Although President Bush declared that Iran had seized the 15 sailors and marines as "hostages," Iran's treatment of its captives from the start indicated that it sought to make a point rather than provoke a war. In contrast to images of blindfolded hostages when Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Iranian footage this time showed the British captives in their uniforms sitting together and eating — a diplomatic affront, but hardly a menacing scene.

The capture of the Britons seemed designed to send three messages to London, and more importantly, to Washington:

  • Don't think about attacking Iran, because it has the capacity to threaten Western interests in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East, directly as well as through allies in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine;

  • Expect Iran to instigate trouble if the West continues to punish Iran for what it sees simply as exercising as its legal right to nuclear technology; and,

  • Iran will play tit-for-tat if U.S. forces continue arresting Iranian officials working inside Iraq, as in the Jan. 11 raid on an Iranian consular facility in Erbil where five Iranians were detained.

    Iran's sudden decision to release the Britons may mean that the Western pressure on the Iranian regime is bearing fruit. A day after the Britons were taken captive, the U.N. Security Council passed the second set of sanctions against Iran in three months — and a third round of sanctions is anticipated if Iran does not freeze its uranium-enrichment program, which the U.S. fears could enable Tehran to produce a nuclear weapon. As Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told the Senate last week, "Despite the fulminations of President Ahmadinejad, Iran is not impervious to financial and diplomatic pressure."

    But the release of the Britons could also mean that Iran has achieved some of its objectives. The surprise announcement came just a day after the sudden release of an abducted Iranian diplomat in Iraq, who Iranian officials claimed had been arrested on U.S. orders. British, American and Iraqi officials denied any connection between the freed Iranian and release of the Britons. Iran also disclosed on Wednesday that its embassy in Iraq had finally been granted access to the five Iranians detained at Erbil.

    The peaceful end to the naval dispute is a victory for diplomacy. Iranian and British leaders maintained constant contact through direct diplomatic channels, and kept their heads amid rising domestic political pressure on both ends to act tough. In particular, the outcome is a significant boost for Iran's pragmatists led by Ali Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, and who is also Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator. Last year, Ahmadinejad's hard-line opposition had helped scuttle a deal Larijani was crafting in discussion with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana that involved a temporary suspension of Iran's enrichment program. In announcing the release of the Britons, Ahmadinejad signaled that the more radical faction of Iran's leadership would not stand in the way of Larijani's dealings with the West. The question now is whether Larijani can achieve the same success in guiding Tehran to a compromise in Iran's nuclear showdown — and whether the U.S., following Britain's example, is willing to give diplomacy a real chance.