Pawns in a losing game: Britain’s policy in tatters

Published in The Indepenent, on April 8, 2007

Excerpt: … In Tehran, meanwhile, a top Iranian official has said Britain apologised for entering Iranian waters in a secret letter that was a condition for the captives’ release. “They didn’t make a threat to us,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who now advises Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, on foreign policy. “They said sorry, we won’t trespass again.” Mr Ahmadinejad said at his press conference on Wednesday that “the British government sent a letter to our Foreign Ministry, and said that this will not be repeated”.

The Foreign Office flatly contradicted Mr Velayati, who also claimed Britain sent a delegation to negotiate in Tehran. He was seeking to defend the Iranian government from hardliners’ anger at the release of the sailors, and went on to suggest the crisis arose in response to Iranian fears about a Western military build-up in the Gulf.

For all the British denials, the remarks look certain to fuel speculation about a back-room deal. Both sides have said the release – which Mr Ahmadinejad called a product of “Islamic compassion” – was unconditional. But Tuesday’s release of an Iranian diplomat, kidnapped in Iraq in February, was seen by many Iranians as a precursor to the sudden announcement that the Britons would be freed.

The propaganda war has scarcely let up since. Iranian channels broadcast Friday’s press conference by the freed captives, now in uniform rather than their Iranian-issue suits, in which they spoke of being blindfolded, kept in isolation and led to believe that their execution was imminent. Ms Turney, who was not present, was said to have been told that all her colleagues had gone home, and that she was the only one still being held. But viewers in Iran saw a banner that warned that the freed personnel had been coerced into their statements by the Ministry of Defence.

The latest shot in this war was the appearance yesterday of the freed Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who said he had been tortured by the CIA during his detention. He was questioned about Iran’s relations with Iraq, and assistance to various Iraqi groups. “Once they heard my response that Iran merely has official relations with the Iraqi government and officials, they intensified tortures, and tortured me through different methods days and nights,” he said.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of his claim, it underlines that this was never simply a bilateral spat: there were four parties to the dispute, with the US and Iraq in the other two corners. They, rather than Britain, were in a position to give Iran rewards for letting the service personnel go. Along with Mr Sharafi’s sudden reappearance, five Iranians seized in Arbil in northern Iraq – diplomats, according to Tehran; special forces operatives, according to Washington – were allowed the consular access Iran had vainly been demanding.

Britain insists its only written communication during the crisis with Iran, sent last Saturday, restated that the incident happened in Iraqi waters, refused to admit responsibility for the crisis and did not offer an apology. However, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett did express “regret” that it happened, and the tone of the note is understood to have been conciliatory.

The softer message coming from the Foreign Office contrasted with the tough language used earlier by Mr Blair, and gave Iran room to back down. Iranian insiders say that it was Mr Blair’s decision to take the matter up with the UN Security Council that prompted a harder Iranian line in the first week of the crisis. A conversation on Tuesday night between Iran’s top security official, Ali Larijani, and Mr Blair’s senior foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, then laid the ground for the surprise release of the prisoners on Wednesday.

But the Iranians kept the British guessing until the last minute. Mr Larijani told Sir Nigel that people should watch Mr Ahmadinejad’s intervention until the very end. Only after the President had spent more than 40 minutes denouncing Britain’s historic interference in Iran, and had awarded medals to the Revolutionary Guard officers who captured the sailors and Marines, did he suddenly announce that they were to be freed.

Aware that Mr Ahmadinejad’s gracious pardoning of the 15 was a propaganda coup beamed live around the world, and a humiliation for British diplomacy, officials went on the offensive, explaining that the release had been a vindication of Britain’s “dual track” strategy: dialogue plus consolidating international and regional support.

Some positive developments have emerged from the two-week crisis, it is said, not least a continued improvement in relations between the UK and Syria, whose offer to mediate was taken up by Britain. There is also some hope that Britain can exploit its new channel with Iran to help with Iraq. The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshair Zebari, was “very active” in passing messages to the Iranians, said a senior government source, who denied any link between the hostage release and the positive developments inside Iraq with the “Arbil five” Iranians.

But now that the hostages are home, there will be concerns in Whitehall that Iran will seek to press its propaganda advantage on the nuclear issue, with an announcement expected at a nuclear facility tomorrow. One senior source said ruefully: “They caught us on the hop when they seized our guys, and now they have caught us on the hop the way they have been freed.”

But according to some hardliners in Iran, it is their country that has been made to look weak. They interpreted Mr Blair’s comments on Tuesday, talking about a “critical 48 hours”, as an ultimatum. When the Britons were released, in their view, it seemed that Tehran had backed down. They had wanted to see the sailors and Marines tried and a public apology forced from Britain.

“The release of the sailors gave the message to the West that in negotiations with Iran they need to respect its dignity,” said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a former newspaper editor who is close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s powerful former president. “Iranians say the map of their country looks like a cat – and this cat needs to be petted and stroked rather than cornered. Because that makes it scratch and fight.”

In an occupation of Iraq that veered off course almost as soon as Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, the greatest unintended consequence of all has been the trump card it has handed to Tehran. Having alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority and given power to a majority Shia community which will always see Iran as its natural ally, Britain and the US have no choice but to seek Iranian co-operation if they are to extricate themselves without ignominy. For Mr Blair, that means restraining Mr Bush as much as seeking to restrain Iran.

Far more is at stake here than Britain’s dwindling force in southern Iraq, or jousting between British inflatables and Iranian speedboats in the Gulf. The American-led “surge” in Baghdad, which is aimed at curbing violence at least to a level that might make an exit strategy possible, depends on some degree of Iranian acquiescence.

America’s most hostile Shia opponent, the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, might or might not have gone to Iran to escape the security crackdown, but the political wing of his movement has spoken in favour of giving the “surge” a chance to succeed. If Tehran had shown open hostility, it would also have been difficult for the US to secure the co-operation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, for Sunni-friendly measures such as reinstating former Iraqi army officers and paying pensions to sacked Baathist officials.

The days are long gone when Washington’s triumphant neo-conservatives, having seen the Iraqi regime fold within weeks, talked openly of conquering Iran next. But Tehran still complains that it has Western forces to both its west and east, in Iraq and Afghanistan, while two US carrier groups are in the Gulf to keep alive President Bush’s implicit military threat on the nuclear issue. Britain and the US are both accused of supporting separatist groups who have carried out bombings and kidnappings on Iranian soil.

Dealing with the Tehran regime and its passive-aggressive approach to the rest of the world has never been easy. But Britain, which is about to dispatch Prince Harry into the dangerous environment of southern Iraq, where Iran has unquestioned influence, is compelled to grit its teeth and do its best. Explaining this to a public which is already bemused about the reasons for Britain’s continued presence in Iraq is another matter.

Victims of war … (full text).

Comments are closed.