In Captured Britons' Home Port, Fury With Iran Is Personal

"If I were in charge," said John Alexander, a retired fisherman in Plymouth, southwestern England, "the special forces would have been there already." (By Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 31, 2007

PLYMOUTH, England, March 30 -- Down at Cap'n Jaspers, a harbor-front burger joint, the anger was raw Friday over Iran's detention of 15 British sailors and marines -- especially Faye Turney, who lives in this military town in southwestern England with her husband and 3-year-old daughter.

"What Iran is doing is immoral," said John Alexander, 63, a retired scallop fisherman. "If I were in charge, the special forces would have been there already, and I would have been the first one in."

A week after Iran seized the Britons in the Persian Gulf, military and diplomatic analysts in Britain said early hopes that the incident would be resolved quickly are fading. Whether the British sailors entered Iranian waters or not -- a point upon which officials in London and Tehran sharply disagree -- analysts said that it now appears Iran planned the seizure of the Britons and that what initially seemed like a diplomatic spat now looks more like a hostage crisis.

"I think it was a calculated move, though I don't think it was a smart one," said Michael Williams, a foreign policy analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. Williams said that many people in the Middle East would applaud Iran for "standing up" to Britain and "sticking a finger in the eye of the West."

But the motives behind Iran's action, which European Union foreign ministers on Friday called a "clear breach of international law," remain unclear. Iran could be retaliating for the U.S. seizure of five Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence operatives in Iraq in January or it could be venting frustration with U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program, analysts said. Others said Iran could simply be playing to public sentiment in the Middle East, where taunting the British is seen as implicitly standing up to the United States.

Laleh Khalili, an Iranian American and lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at the University of London, said she believed the Iranian seizure of the Britons was "premeditated," especially since it has dragged out, with the captives being shown on Iranian state television and used to deliver political statements. Khalili said that because there has been so little communication from Iran, it is difficult to say what point Iranian officials want to make.

Whatever the motive, Iran is faring well in the public relations battle in the Middle East, she said. While many in the West accept the British government's version of events, a great number of people in Arab countries believe Iran is telling the truth. Khalili said many people in the Middle East are "profoundly suspicious" of the British, because of their historical role as a colonial power in the region and because of the "very recent history of false information about the Iraq war."

On Friday, the Tehran government continued to press a propaganda offensive centering on video footage and letters in which the detained British sailors purportedly acknowledge that they illegally trespassed into Iranian waters. Iranian state television showed footage of British marine Nathan Thomas Summers saying he apologized "deeply" for entering Iranian waters. "We trespassed without permission," Summers said on the tape. It was impossible to verify whether Summers had been coerced, but Prime Minister Tony Blair reacted with exasperation, like many people in this city, home to the largest naval base in Western Europe.

"I don't know why the Iranian regime keeps doing this -- all it does is heighten people's sense of disgust," Blair said. "Captured personnel being paraded and manipulated in this way, it doesn't fool anyone."

Iranian officials released a letter they said was written by Turney, the third such letter in three days, in which the 26-year-old sailor allegedly tells "the British people" that she has been "sent to Iraq, sacrificed due to the intervening policies of the Bush and Blair governments." The letter says she is "deeply sorry" for trespassing and "thankful" for the "caring, compassionate, hospitable and friendly" Iranian people. And it states, "I believe that for our countries to move forward we need to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and leave the people of Iraq to start re-building their lives."

The letter also mentions prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison: "Whereas we hear and see on the news the way prisoners were treated" there by British and American personnel, "I have received total respect and faced no harm."

On the streets of Plymouth, the home port of the HMS Cornwall, the frigate Turney and the 14 other British naval personnel were returning to when they were captured March 23, people said they believed the letters were coerced and contained awkward language that a young British woman would never use.

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