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Iranian prisoner crisis: It's not 1979, but some lessons apply

Britain's 'softly softly' approach, drawn from experience, appears to be yielding progress.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent / April 4, 2007


The 1979 parallels are tempting: a confrontation with Iran over captive Westerners, hostages paraded in front of television cameras, an embattled Iranian leadership, and a Western leader nearing the end of his term.

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For some, today's British-Iranian crisis bears ominous echoes of the 1979-81 US hostage situation.

But as London and Tehran produced their most conciliatory language yet in the 12-day hostage standoff Tuesday, experts are now cautiously predicting a rapid endgame. Some say a more salient comparison now is the three-day episode in 2004 in which eight British sailors were seized in the same waters, paraded on television, and then released.

After almost two weeks of mutual recrimination, triggered by Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and marines in the Gulf, signs emerged Tuesday that the adversaries are seeking a diplomatic formula that would save face on both sides.

Senior Iranian officials have noted a "positive change" in Britain's position and have indicated that the televised "confessions" of the sailors that have so enraged Britain would stop, though one Iranian news agency published still pictures of some of the sailors Tuesday.

Ali Larijani, Iran's influential national security council chief, said Tehran wanted to resolve the issue diplomatically and did not want drawn-out "complications."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his part said Mr. Larijani's comments "seem to offer some prospect," and said the door was open to a diplomatic resolution. The next two days, Blair said, would be crucial.

"There are still some differences between us, but we share [Larijani's] preference for early bilateral discussions to find a diplomatic solution to this problem," says one British official, on customary condition of anonymity.

Lessons from the 1979-81 crisis

In short, things look very different from 1979. Then, there were scant grounds for compromise. The newfound theocratic leadership in Tehran swung behind the students who broke diplomatic and international conventions by occupying the US Embassy, taking more than 50 hostages. And things dragged out for 444 days.

But some lessons may have been learned from the 1979-81 crisis. Hodding Carter III, who was US undersecretary of State at the time, said one of the conclusions to be drawn was that "when hostages are taken it's a very good time for governments to shut up."

"You're better off conducting diplomacy behind closed doors," he told BBC radio Monday. "You are far more likely to be able to affect something if you are not out there beating your chest and letting them beat their chest in return."

British diplomats are essentially trying to do just that: working quietly to elaborate a formula that will enable both sides to emerge with no loss of face. Despite shrill calls from Americans such as former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, and from parts of the domestic press to act more robustly against Iran, Britain has by and large pursued a "softly softly" approach. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Tuesday evening that there was a "huge amount" going on behind the scenes.