British Captives in Iran Face Uncertain Fate

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AFP / Getty

The Kingdom of Bahrain racing yacht of the five British men, which was detained by Iranian navy ships

You've got to feel sorry for the five British yachtsmen who set sail from the tiny Middle East state of Bahrain last week. First, a dodgy propeller apparently stalled their vessel's progress toward the nearby emirate of Dubai. Worse still, seemingly adrift in the Persian Gulf, their 60-ft. boat appears to have inadvertently coasted into the territorial waters of Iran. Duly halted by Iranian naval vessels on Nov. 25, the men — seasoned sailors who had planned to take part in a yacht race from Dubai the following day — were swiftly whisked into the uncertain fate of Iranian custody at a moment of mounting tensions between Tehran and the West.

Diplomatic efforts to free the five men will certainly be complicated by the diminished goodwill between London and Tehran, which has been stretched thin in recent months amid conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions and disputed presidential election. With Britain often the preferred whipping boy of the Tehran regime's denunciation of alleged Western conspiracies against it, the yachtsmen's capture, made public on Nov. 30, could hardly have come at a worse time. Desperate to play down the incident and avoid a diplomatic row, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he was looking forward to the matter "being promptly sorted out." Tehran took a different tone. "Naturally our measures will be hard and serious," Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, chief of staff to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told the semiofficial Fars news agency on Tuesday, "if we find out [the sailors] had evil intentions."

Such comments echo those heard in 2007 after Iran's Revolutionary Guards detained 15 U.K. servicemen in the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway that runs between Iran and Iraq. Back then, Tehran accused the Brits of trespassing in its waters. (London insisted the personnel had been patrolling Iraqi seas.) The 15 were pardoned and released by Ahmadinejad after being held for two weeks. Three years earlier, eight British servicemen snatched in the same area were also accused of trespassing. In both cases, the British military personnel were paraded on Iranian television. "Whether it's premeditated or the actions of an enthusiastic local officer," says Richard Schofield, senior lecturer in boundary studies at King's College London, the seizure of foreigners usually occurs "at a time when [Iran has] been under some international pressure. There's always been a bit of a linkage here."

But the sailors Iran is now holding are not military personnel, and Iran's next move is more difficult to predict. Britain was resurrected as "Little Satan" in Iranian propaganda this year and accused by the regime of directly fomenting the turmoil on the streets of Iran that followed the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in June. An Iranian employee of the British embassy in Tehran was sentenced last month to four years in jail for his alleged involvement in the demonstrations.

But because the yachtsmen have no military or government ties, mounting a case against them will be tricky. "The Iranians could be magnanimous, try to get rid of the 'bad boy' reputation they have by releasing them," says Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "On the other hand, there is going to be great pressure to not do that, to keep them and either parade them — which Iranians will say they're only doing to show they're being treated well — but at any rate send out tidbits of information which will keep the media story moving but won't foreclose any options for them." Either way, it's enough to make recreational sailors think twice before setting sail in the Gulf.