Thursday, March 29, 2007

British 'error' prolongs hostage crisis

Blair: Britain Won't Negotiate With Iran
Moran speaks of naiveté. Is this spin or is Moran naive as well. I doubt it is the latter. And I don't believe for a moment the Brits don't know what they are doing. After all they are after all the masters of the "dodgy dossier".
British error prolongs hostage crisis

The British Defence Ministry's failure to understand the dynamics of the hostage game with Iran displays a certain naiveté that ill serves its captive sailors.

Commentary by Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (29/03/07)

Events had been proceeding according to script in the British sailors' hostage crisis.

Accusations and counter-accusations had been leveled, with both sides displaying an implicit understanding that the position of the HMS Cornwall at the time of the Iranian abduction of the 15 British service personnel was nothing more than a canard.

By Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had begun to moderate his country's official position on the crisis, intimating a willingness to allow British envoys to visit the detainees and release the lone woman captive, Leading Seaman Faye Turney.

The UK was also playing the game, intimating a desire to internationalize the crisis while taking no concrete steps in this direction, conducting "behind-the-scenes" negotiations via Middle East countries known to have close ties to Iran.

Then came the Wednesday news conference in which Britain's Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, Vice Admiral Charles Style, broke the unwritten rules of the standoff by demonstrating unequivocally through GPS coordinates that the British warship had been 1.7 nautical miles also inside Iraqi waters at the time of the incident.

Iran may have allowed this to pass had he not then alleged that Iranian officials had countered this claim by providing alternative coordinates inside Iraqi territorial waters before changing their tune on further British questioning.

Suddenly the focus was reverted to the issue of national sovereignty, sparking mutual recriminations and a hardening of positions on both sides.

This played straight into the hands of the sailors' captors, assumed to be elements of the Iranian Republican Guards. Caught in a lie, Iranian officials were forced to fall back on their previous position that the British service personnel had already admitted their guilt.

What happened next was as predictable as it was disturbing, the parading of the captured sailors in front of the television cameras and a coerced and obviously scripted "confession" from Turney, which should have presaged her imminent release but was instead wasted as a counter to the British allegations - Mottaki maintains she will be released shortly.

Within Iran, hardliners have made repeated calls for the eventual emancipation of the British service personnel to be linked to the freeing of six Iranian nationals. The BBC reports that student leaders of the Revolutionary Guards' Basij paramilitary force, believed to have close ties to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been among those seeking this link.

The British Defense Ministry's decision to state its case at a time when Iranian diplomats were beginning to display signs of moderation must have had British diplomats engaged in ongoing backdoor negotiations pulling their hair out.

In a carefully crafted speech carried by CNN on Wednesday, British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett announced the suspension of bilateral Anglo-Iranian ties until the sailors were returned, save for negotiations on their release.

She prodded Iran to move more quickly to resolve the crisis, telling the House of Commons, "I regret to say that the Iranian authorities have so far failed to meet any of our demands or responded to our desire to resolve this issue quickly and quietly through behind the scenes diplomacy."

Tongue firmly in cheek, she welcomed the fact, "They have also assured us that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues, bilateral, regional or international."

Last Friday's arrests of the British sailors was directly related to the imminent UN Security Council decision to extend UN sanctions over Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and provide details of alleged covert nuclear activities.

The extended sanctions package, which received unanimous Council support, moves beyond the immediate circle of those with direct ties to Iran's nuclear program affected by initial UN measures, extending a financial assets freeze to a further 28 individuals, including Republican Guards commanders.

The extended sanctions package also includes a ban on Iranian weapons exports, which is likely to impact the personal fortunes of top military and industrial leaders.

In this light, the Republican Guards Navy's arrest of the British sailors can be seen as both a national and as a personal response to the new UN strictures on the part of a small coterie whose interests do not necessarily equate with Iranian foreign policy positions.

The British Defence Ministry's failure to understand this dynamic displays a certain naiveté that ill serves its captive sailors.

That said, the responsibility for the current crisis lies firmly with Iran and can now only be resolved through compromise on the Islamic Republic's demand that Britain admit and apologize for an offense its forces demonstrably did not commit.

Dr Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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