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Iranian-British Standoff Leaves Domestic, International Political Fallout

Iran is embroiled in controversy with the West over issues ranging from Iran's nuclear ambitions to its bid to extend its influence in Iraq and the Middle East. Yet, even at such a sensitive time, Iran detained 15 British sailors who were on patrol in the Persian Gulf and held them for nearly two weeks. Britain said its personnel had been in Iraqi waters, not in Iranian waters as Tehran maintains. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas looks at some of the questions surrounding the incident and the possible ramifications.

The reasons for the capture of the British naval personnel in late March, and the subsequent fallout from it, may lie across Iran's western border in Iraq, where analysts say Iran is seeking to extend its influence, and the U.S. is trying to halt it.

The United States says Iran is training Iraqi insurgents and arming them with deadly roadside bombs to attack U.S. forces. Iran denies the charge, dismissing it as propaganda.

President Bush has pledged to halt any cross-border activity. "When we find the networks that are enabling these weapons to end up in Iraq, we will deal with them," said the president. "If we find agents who are moving these devices into Iraq, we will deal with them."

So in January, U.S. forces detained five Iranians in the northern city of Irbil. In a separate incident, an Iranian diplomat was abducted by unknown Iraqi gunmen. Former CIA analyst Paul Piller explains what followed.

"So the Iranians felt like they were getting shoved around with that earlier episode in Iraq, two episodes, really, and they wanted to do some shoving back," explained Piller. "It would have been riskier to shove directly back against the United States. So the slightly softer target, if you will, the 'squishier' target but one with whom the message would still be sent [that] 'we're not going to be shoved around,' was the British servicemen."

No one outside Tehran's inner ruling circle knows for certain who ordered the action. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offers a possible scenario. “I think that at the senior levels in Tehran there's ... a sense of schizophrenia," says Sadjadpour, "that on the one hand, 'we don't want confrontation, we're weary of political and economic isolation,' but on the other hand, 'we're not simply going to lie down when you turn up the heat.'"

Former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick says the United States and Iran have similar interests in a stable Iraq, but that as Iraq's neighbor, Iran will not back off from its bid to exert influence there.

"What's curious is that the United States and Iran have very close to the same interests in Iraq in the broad sense," says Sick, who now teaches at Columbia University in New York.

"But the difference is that Iran is there, it's on the [Iraqi] border. It's fought a war with Iraq. And Iran is going to stay there. We're going to go away. They will still be there 100 years from now," he continued, "and they have to think about what that's going to mean for their long-term interests. At the moment, I think they feel they're doing pretty well."

A multinational conference on stabilizing Iraq was held in March that included both U.S. and Iranian officials. Another meeting, this time with higher-ranking diplomats, is in the works.

Paul Pillar says the meeting next month in Egypt was another factor in the quick end to the British-Iranian standoff. "I speculate that part of the thinking in Tehran which led to the release after the two weeks of captivity was not wanting to complicate particularly the Iraq conference, which is going to address some subjects that, despite the rhetoric on both sides, both the United States and Iran share many interests, particularly the basic interest of not wanting to have unending and escalating disorder in Iraq. And, of course, for the Iranians," he added, "it's right next door."

The Iranian diplomat who was captured by unknown Iraqi gunmen gained his freedom right before Iran released the British naval personnel. Britain says there is no connection. Negotiations also began to allow Iranian envoys to visit the Iranians in U.S. custody.

Yet, mutual suspicions persist. Iran is threatening to boycott the next Iraq conference unless the five Iranians detained by U.S. forces are released. Iran says they are diplomats. American officials believe they are linked to Iraqi insurgents.