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Iranian Abduction of British Sailors Remains a Puzzle

Iran says the 15 British sailors and marines captured Friday by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in disputed waters in the Persian Gulf are being held in Tehran. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports from Washington, Iran's motives in detaining them, and what the Iranian government's plans for them are, remain unclear.

Analysts say the interception of the small British patrol boats and the capture of the 14 men and one woman by Revolutionary Guards was clearly a well-planned ambush. But the reason for the action is murky.

Kamran Bokhari, an analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says it is simply not credible that it was a chance encounter.

"That's just not the way the Iranians do business," he said. "If it was somebody else, we could have said, the Iranians really didn't think this out."

"Now, of course, there are always miscalculations, no matter how shrewd and smart a political actor is. That is always the case. But, with regards to planning, I think this was very well thought out," he added.

Iran claims the small British craft were in Iranian waters when Revolutionary Guard naval forces seized them and 15 crew. Britain denies the allegation, saying the craft were in Iraqi waters.

Some analysts believe Iran was reacting to the U.S. detention of five Iranians, Tehran says were diplomats in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil earlier this year.

Wayne White, former senior Middle East analyst at the State Department, says Iran was perhaps gambling that seizing British forces was less risky than some kind of action against U.S. troops.

"I think it was a direct retaliation, knowing that, if they went after us, they could really get into trouble, and figuring out that the Brits, who are very active down there [in southern Iraq], wouldn't be the kind who would launch massive air strikes or anything in response to it," said White.

But in a British TV interview, Prime Minister Tony Blair hinted at some further action, if the sailors and marines are not immediately released.

"I hope we manage to get them to realize that they have to release them," he said. "If not, then this will move into a different phase."

A British spokesman later clarified the prime minister's remarks, saying they were not a hint of military action or expulsion of Iranian diplomats.

Iran detained the British seamen a day before the U.N. Security Council passed new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Ken Katzman, an Iran analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, believes the Iranian action was really aimed at trying to get Washington and its allies to ease up on a number of matters, including the dispute over the nuclear issue and Iran's role in Iraq.

"I think that Iran is trying to get the United States to back off. The Iranians are trying to get the United States to stop pressing at the Security Council for more sanctions, and to stop the Europeans to cut off banking and other financial services for Iran," he said.

"I mean, it's really the whole package. Iran is trying to show the United States that there are costs, and that Iran can make life difficult in Iraq, in the Gulf, and elsewher," he continued.

Stratfor's Kamran Bokhari believes it is more directly aimed at getting concessions on Iran's role in Iraq.

"This is something that is low-cost for the Iranians. This is something the Iranians see that they can get away with, without incurring any sort of massive reprisal or attack or any type of aggressive action from the West. They're making a statement saying, 'you know what? This is not good enough, the terms on which you want to negotiate on Iraq are not good enough.' And they don't want to lose the nuclear card, either," said Bokhari.

Wayne White, now at the Middle East Institute, says the matter is bound to affect Iran's standing on a wide range of issues, including any fresh talks on stabilizing Iraq.

"What's going to happen is that it's going to meld into the whole nuclear standoff thing, the whole 'you're interfering in Iraq thing,' and it's just going to wrap up into the general picture of Iran [as] the increasingly big bad guy in the region," he explained.

The first tentative talks on stabilizing Iraq took place in Baghdad earlier this month, with officials from Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, as well as from the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in attendance.