BAGHDAD — From the United Nations in New York to the Shatt al-Arab waterway that splits southern Iran and Iraq, the ongoing row over Iran's nuclear program turned decidedly more confrontational over the weekend.
The UN Security Council Saturday unanimously agreed to widen economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, taking aim at the country's arms exports, state bank, and its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But new UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment are prompting more belligerence from Iran, as the country appears to be shifting its policy of avoiding confrontation to "following their traditional aggressive policies [pursued since the] Islamic revolution" of 1979, says Saeed Leylaz, an independent analyst in Tehran.
Signaling that it will not be bullied, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized 15 British sailors and marines that Tehran says were engaged in "blatant aggression" inside its waters on Friday along its disputed riverine border with Iraq. Britain denies that its crews entered Iranian waters.
While the new UN resolution is far weaker than what the US, Britain, and France first proposed, it "is a very big step toward surrounding [Iran]. The US is going step by step to surround the country militarily, economically, and politically," says Mr. Leylaz. "They are surrounding us, and [so] the British sailors have been arrested because Iran is trying to warn Western countries that it will perceive these new sanctions as enemy [actions]."
Measures of the sanctions vote reach beyond Iran's nuclear program, and are directed at individuals and the Revolutionary Guard Corps – the powerful, ideological force separate from the regular army – to limit Iran's growing influence across the region.
Washington is trying to "change the actions and behavior" of Iran, Nicholas Burns, the US under secretary of State for political affairs, told The New York Times. "And so the sanctions are immediately focused on the nuclear weapons research program, but we also are trying to limit the ability of Iran to be a disruptive and violent factor in Middle East politics."
Iran's reaction was given in New York by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in lieu of a planned visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tehran claimed that the US "deliberately" failed to issue visas on time for the president's flight crew, a charge US officials deny.
"The world must know – and it does – that even the harshest sanctions and other threats are far too weak to coerce the Iranian people to retreat from their legal and legitimate demands," Mr. Mottaki told the council. "I can assure you that pressure and intimidation will not change Iranian policy," Mottaki said, adding that suspension of nuclear work was "neither an option nor a solution."
As a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is permitted to develop peaceful nuclear technology, which includes the complete nuclear fuel cycle. But outstanding issues remain, which have so far prevented UN nuclear inspectors from confirming that Iran's program is peaceful. Key Western powers, led by the US, accuse Iran of using its stated quest for nuclear fuel expertise as a cover for a weapons program. They note that mastering these peaceful processes would give Iran the capability to step over the "threshold" and pursue atomic bombs.
"This resolution sends an unambiguous signal to the government and people of Iran ... that the path of nuclear proliferation by Iran is not one that the international community can accept," said Emyr Jones Parry, the British ambassador to the UN.
Even as the UN vote was taken, the circumstances and location of the British sailors and Royal Marines remained unclear. Their detention echoed a similar incident in 2004, when eight British sailors were picked up, subjected to mock executions, and held for three days after straying into Iranian waters.
Iranian officials say the Britons have "confessed." But the political situation could not be more different today, with both sides in the "Iran versus the West" struggle looking for strategic advantage.
Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei made a stern declaration in his New Year message last Wednesday, in a sign that Washington's mounting accusations about Iranian meddling in the region are being felt in Tehran.
"In case the enemies of Iran intend to use force and violence and act illegally, without a doubt the Iranian nation and officials will use all their capabilities to strike enemies that attack," he said.
That warning has been echoed by senior military officers. The British sailors were detained – British officials say "kidnapped" – less than two days later.
"The captured British sailors are under interrogation and admitted ... that they have transgressed Iranian territorial waters," said Army Gen. Ali Reza Afshar, Iran's deputy chief of staff.
"The United States and its allies know that if they make any mistake in their calculations ... they will not be able to control the dimensions and limit the duration of a war," said General Afshar.
Other reporting indicated that the Britons may have been picked up to be used as bargaining chips for the release of five Iranians detained in January by US forces in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil.
Iran claims they were "diplomats" who were "kidnapped" from an official Iranian consulate. The US alleges that the men were Revolutionary Guard operatives, caught with a "treasure trove" of intelligence and flushing documents down the toilet.
The London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, quoting what it called a source close to Iran Al Qods Brigade – an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that the US accuses of targeting Americans in Iraq – reported over the weekend that the arrest of the Iranians had compromised Al Qods operations in Iraq.
"The decision to detain the Britons was made at an emergency meeting of the Supreme Defense [Security] Council for the purpose of bargaining for the release of the Revolutionary Guard and intelligence officers being held by the Americans in Iraq," the pan-Arab newspaper quoted the source as saying.
This dynamic points to a broader strategic game at play in New York, Iran, and Iraq, analysts say.
"The issue is much more than the nuclear program [and] in recent months that has become clearer, as the Americans have started explicitly linking Iran with destabilizing Iraq, and putting a carrier task force into the Gulf, to reassure its allies and have more leverage on Iran," says Shahram Chubin, an Iran specialist at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
"In the background, the fact is the nuclear program is only a symptom of the problem," says Mr. Chubin, author of "Iran's Nuclear Ambitions."
"Because the nature of Iran's activities in the region – that is anti-Americanism – is what animates most of the skepticism and the distrust of Iran's motives ... which are unacceptable to the US and many European countries."
The second unanimous UN vote against Iran may again be symbolic and nonmilitary, but unlike Iran's past talks with European and other negotiators, "there is absolutely no wiggle room" about the requirement to suspend, says Chubin. "The Security Council has twice been able to vote against Iran, but it's been unable to vote on Darfur. That tells you the Russians and Chinese are serious about this."
The result is concern in Tehran, on an issue that ranks high in national pride. Iran last week released a new 50,000 rial banknote, the largest denomination, that showed an atomic symbol over a map of Iran, and words from the prophet Muhammad: "If knowledge is in the heavens, the Persians will go and get it."
"For the last six months, the military forces of Iran have been under very high pressure – not only in Arbil, but in Istanbul, in Lebanon, everywhere in the world," says analyst Laylaz.
"The US is trying to make them nervous, and more or less it seems they have been successful," he adds. "And because of this, the system [Iran's Islamic regime] should do something. They have to react against that action."