British sailors are latest pawns in Iranian politics

The announced release by Iran of eight detained British sailors Wednesday defused a brewing diplomatic crisis. It reflects how Iran - despite a clear conservative political shift in recent months - can still choose pragmatism on matters crucial to national security.

Iran's Foreign Ministry made the announcement Wednesday, after saying that interrogation of the of the Royal Navy sailors found the incursion was a mistake. The sailors were found on Monday in Iranian waters, as they delivered boats to the new Iraqi Navy in the narrow waterway that divides the two countries.

The final outcome will not hearten Iranian hard-liners, analysts say, who may have relished the image of the Islamic Republic taking on the West, and especially Britain, after recent bruising episodes over Iran's nuclear programs and human rights performance.

The incident threatened to devolve into a new chapter in the longstanding internal battle between hard-liners and reformers, when Iranian television showed blind-folded sailors on Tuesday, and said they would be prosecuted. Neither side in the past has hesitated to use diplomatic incidents to embarrass the other, and let the internal tug of war spill over onto the international stage.

By press time, even with explicit promises of release by both Iranian and British officials, broadcasts in English and Farsi appeared to contradict each other over whether the release would in fact take place.

One veteran political analyst in Tehran suggests that the arrest was an act by hard-liners, which then became a problem for the less conservative government of President Mohamad Khatami. Similar incidents in the past were easily solved, and never flared to such a political issue.

"There has been criticism [by the hard-liners] that Iran's foreign policy has gone too soft, and [Foreign Minister] Kamal Kharrazi is sitting around and joking with Westerners, and forgetting that Iran is a revolutionary country," says the analyst, who asked not to be named.

Iran was rebuked by the UN's nuclear watchdog last week for not cooperating fully with inspectors. Washington says the program is a facade for Iran attempt to build nuclear weapons.

Britain helped author the rebuke. The British Embassy in Tehran has been the target of numerous protests in recent months - and even shootings in the past year and a half - because British forces are key to the US-led coalition in Iraq.

"If the European powers, including Britain, had acted more favorably toward Iran [on the nuclear issue], this kind of operation [arresting the sailors] would not have taken place," says Sadiq Zibakalam, a political scientist at Tehran University.

Europe coaxed Iran to agree last October to a deal in which Iran would open up its nuclear program to full inspection, in exchange for technical help for its energy efforts - help that Mr. Zibakalam says has not been felt in Tehran.

While hard-liners may want to make a point to Britain, the issue has been taken on by the more representative National Security Council, which answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and includes other key elements of the regime. "That council has proved that they are prudent, that they are not extremists, not radicals, and that they are very much under the influence of pragmatists in the Iran leadership," says Zibakalam. "Iran is asserting itself, wants to be respected as a regional power, and doesn't want to be shoved around by the British or Americans."

For some hard-liners, that meant the near crisis held hope of a confrontation. One newspaper Wednesday morning appeared ready to relish a diplomatic tussle, when it wrote of a British "conspiracy" to export violence from Iraq to Iran.

"The hard-liners are trying to assert themselves, and say it is not without any cost to push Iran around," says the veteran analyst. That message is an "angry reaction" toward the West, with the "assumption that the Europeans are much closer to the US now, so it's no use to distinguish between them."

And on a broader level, "Iranian revolutionaries feel frustrated, because all the action is being carried out by Sunni Muslims, and the good Shiites [the majority in Iran] are doing nothing," says the analyst.

"In Iraq and all over the world, the militants [like Al Qaeda] are suddenly Sunnis; the Shiites aren't lifting a finger," he adds. "So [the British arrests] are something to boost morale, to say: 'We are in the game also.' "

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