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Iran and Britain Standoff


The crisis between Britain and Iran over Tehran's detention of 15 British sailors and marines ended with the safe return of the captives. What did either country win or lose in the standoff?

In announcing the release of the 15 British captives, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was freeing the captives as what he termed a "gift to the British people." But is Iran expecting a gift in return? British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain had ended the crisis without making any deals with Iran.

"We have managed to secure the return of our personnel more quickly than many people anticipated, and have done so, incidentally -- and I want to make this very, very clear -- without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature whatever. We made clear at the outset that we were not going to do that. And we held firm to that position throughout," Blair said.

Who Won, Who Lost?

Wayne White, a former senior intelligence analyst for the U.S. State Department, says Britain came out looking good in the end if there really was no deal with Iran for the release. "We don't know what was going on under the blanket. It's quite possible that the Brits gave something that we're going to find out about later. If not, the Brits came off very well in all this if the Iranians didn't extract something from them," says White.

Nevertheless, an Iranian diplomat seized by uniformed gunmen in Iraq in February was suddenly freed the day before Iran released the British military personnel. Five Iranians arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq in January were allowed a visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross. And negotiations are reported to be under way for some kind of official Iranian access to the captives.

John Calabrese of the Middle East Institute believes there is linkage between those events and the British sailors' release, but says that deft behind-the-scenes diplomacy allows both sides to claim no deals were made. "Though no one would ever admit there was a quid pro quo or negotiated end, it appears that these sort of circumstances were linked. And now each of the parties to the conflict and the United States can each basically go back to its domestic political constituency and either claim or deny there was a quid pro quo, and all make credible cases to their domestic political constituencies," says Calabrese.

Reva Bhalla, an Iran affairs analyst at the private intelligence firm, Stratfor, says Iran's leadership put a good public relations spin on the crisis, even if it did not get the apology it demanded from Britain for what Tehran claims, and Britain denies, was a violation of Iranian territorial waters. "The way Iran played this latest hand was very skillful, I think, just in the public sphere in the way that they showed how it was a public humiliation for the Brits and for the U.S.," says Bhalla.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Iran may have gained some prestige in the Islamic world over the incident. However, he says, Iran's international standing has suffered just at a time when it is being squeezed by the U.N. Security Council over its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions.

"I think the Iranians probably came out looking good in the Muslim street and among the Middle Eastern masses who are very much in opposition to U.S. and Western foreign policy in the Middle East. So I think the taxi drivers in Cairo and Riyadh and Damascus probably have even more respect for Iran than they did in the past," says Sadjadpour. "That being said, I think Iran even further tarnished its own reputation in the eyes of the West, in the eyes of many Americans and Europeans."

Inside Iran

The effect on Iran's domestic political landscape is difficult to gauge because it is still not clear who ordered the seizure in the first place. The widespread assumption is that it must have been on the orders of the country's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmmadinejad. But the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has the final say in the highly secretive policy decisions, and there are also competing factions jockeying for power in Tehran.

Karim Sadjadpour questions Ahmadinejad's role in precipitating and resolving the crisis. "I would argue that President Ahmadinejad neither ordered the seizure of the British sailors, nor was he the one who organized their release. I think President Ahmadinejad is really an actor in this entire drama, but he is certainly not the director," says Sadjadpour.

He says that whether the Revolutionary Guard acted on its own, or whether Khamenei or Ahmadinejad ordered the action, Iran never airs its internal policy disputes. "It's very difficult for us to opine whether they did this on their own or whether their actions were blessed by Ayatollah Khamenei beforehand. But in any case, the regime is going to show it's acting, different elements of the regime are acting, in concert with one another," says Sadjadpour. "So even if the Revolutionary Guards did this on their own, Ayatollah Khamenei would never come out and say, 'Well, I had no idea they were going to do this.' Of course, he's going to want to show he is fully in charge of things."

Analysts add that the Bush administration came out looking good by simply staying in the background and letting Prime Minister Blair call the plays in the crisis.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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