Financial Times Editorial Comment: Iran's calculated end to hostages drama
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 5 2007 03:00 | Last updated: April 5 2007 03:00
It was a weirdly effective performance. Invoking the "anniversary of the death of Jesus Christ" and the spirit of forgiveness, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran's mercurial president, ended a characteristically prolix press conference yesterday with a coup de theatre: freeing the 15 British sailors and marines seized by Revolutionary Guards in the northern Gulf 13 days ago. This "gift" to the British people has damped down a highly combustible situation - and Iran will be looking to claim as much of the credit as it can.
Britain will be mightily relieved at the return of the servicemen (and one woman). But the government will face some hard questioning: about how this incident could be allowed to happen, with pitifully armed patrols operating in indefensible dinghies in arguably the most dangerous waters in the world; about the circumstances in which the sailors confessed on Iranian television that they had indeed violated Iran's territorial waters; about the humiliating propaganda of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's long goodbye, televised to the world, to the freed and, on the face of it, effusively grateful servicemen.
Britain's tactics were not, initially, joined up. It was particularly foolish to pretend that the Royal Navy was on the right, Iraqi side of a maritime boundary that does not formally exist, rather than insist it was operating under and enforcing United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Iran, by contrast, will be feeling a good deal less cornered than it did two weeks ago, on the eve of a UN Security Council vote expanding sanctions because of Tehran's refusal to cease enriching uranium. An unpopular regime rallied the nation, sensitised by a century of illicit Anglo-American intervention in Iran's affairs. Tehran's robust style has impressed Arabs and Muslims who see their leaders as corrupt lackeys of the west. And Iran has shown it will push back against the provocative build-up of Anglo-American forces in the Gulf. It has succeeded in highlighting that danger, and suggesting that the spike in the oil price caused by the crisis is but a foretaste of what would happen if Iran is attacked.
That the release of the servicemen was preceded by the release of an Iranian diplomat abducted in Baghdad in February, and the promise of consular access to five other Iranian officials seized by US forces in Iraqi Kurdistan in January, gives rise to suspicions this was, in the end, a classic Middle Eastern exchange of hostages. That would be unfortunate - and dangerous. Few now remember that the "western" hostages crisis in the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s began with the seizure of four Iranian diplomats.
The best lesson to take away from this affair was how rapidly it was resolved once empowered officials on both sides talked directly. The US and its allies should confront Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions the same way. If it does not work, nothing will be lost.