By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007
British officials expected an angry rant when they heard that Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was going to give a news conference yesterday about the 15 British sailors and marines detained two weeks ago in the Persian Gulf.
Instead, the Iranian leader pledged to release the 14 men and one woman -- ending a crisis that may lead Tehran to claim a short-term victory but also pay a long-term price, according to Iran experts and Western and Iranian officials.
The Iranian government believes it scored a number of points, the sources said. As the Islamic republic faces growing pressure at the United Nations over its nuclear program, Tehran signaled that diplomacy -- rather than confrontation -- can defuse problems with the international community in the end.
"They got what they wanted," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council Middle East specialist now at the Brookings Institution. "They sent a message: If you don't deal with us, if you think you can push us around, you're in for some nasty surprises. But if you deal with us, you can get a 'gift.' " Ahmadinejad described the release as a "gift" in honor of the prophet Muhammad's birthday and Easter.
Efforts to free the 15 British detainees swung from behind-the-scenes diplomacy during the first week to internationalization of the standoff during the second week, when Britain won a statement of concern from the U.N. Security Council. The turning point, according to Iranian and British sources, was the exchange of diplomatic notes at the end of last week that shifted the process back to quiet bilateral efforts.
"There was a lot of activity the last two days to bring the level of rhetoric down," said a senior Iranian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Britain's diplomatic note last Friday promised to respect Iranian territory, he said. "This shows that there is a useful and conducive way to deal with Iran and that it is not through threats," the official said. "If Britain had not taken this to the Security Council, then this would have been resolved earlier."
Ahmadinejad, under pressure at home for failing to deliver on the utopian promises he made during the 2005 election campaign, may also have won a domestic propaganda victory, standing up to the West at one of the country's most vulnerable times since the 1979 revolution. The standoff with Britain deflected attention from U.N. Resolution 1747, which imposed new sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program. It passed a day after the British naval team was detained. And although Iran's Supreme National Security Council and supreme leader Ali Khamenei ultimately make key foreign policy decisions, Iranian television showed Ahmadinejad being thanked by a British sailor.
"He has come out more popular with his own supporters at the moment," said Christopher Rundle, a retired British diplomat who served in Iran.
At a time when five members of its Revolutionary Guard Corps are being detained by the United States in Iraq, Iran's most elite military unit also proved that it can play the tit-for-tat game, experts said. The British were seized by the Guard's naval unit. "The Revolutionary Guards wanted to send a signal to the U.S. and U.K. that 'if you mess with us, we'll mess with you. We know where you're vulnerable,' " said Riedel, who believes there is a link between the two cases.
The U.S. military detained the five during a raid in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on Jan. 11. Iran had expected their release three days before the British were detained. Although U.S. and British officials deny any deal or quid pro quo for the 15 Britons, the United States allowed the Iranians to be visited for the first time by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and is considering permitting Iran to have consular access to them, U.S. officials said.
Yet Iran is also likely to pay a long-term price for the detention drama, again appearing to undertake rogue actions in violation of international law, experts and officials said. In the end, Iran recognized that the crisis was beginning to exact a cost, as it came under pressure even from allies and other Islamic countries, officials and experts said. Even Syria urged Iran to release the Britons, Syrian and U.S. sources said.
"They are so consumed with short-term issues -- how to undermine the West and how to gain leverage -- at the expense of long-term strategy. They have undermined themselves," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They're playing the immediate moves of checkers and not the long-term strategy of a chess game. In the long term, it undermines their ability to attract foreign investment and have good relations" with the outside world.
Tehran was also unable to rally significant public support for another long-term showdown like the 1979-1981 hostage ordeal involving 52 American diplomats, experts added. "There was no nationalist bounce out of this," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "All the usual people you'd expect to be frothing at the mouth simply weren't."
Researcher Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.