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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.

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"What is to be gained from following the Israeli example of last summer [when it invaded Lebanon after its soldier was captured]?" asks Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, a London think tank, "You can't use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They still haven't got their service personnel back, and they smashed up half of Lebanon."

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"If the objective is to get the personnel back then one is looking for a formula which both sides can benefit from," she adds.

That was the approach three years ago, when six British sailors and two Royal Marines were seized in a similar part of the northern Gulf. On that occasion, Britain quietly admitted that its personnel may have strayed across the border by mistake.

Matters have not been helped this time around by the Iranian New Year holiday, which has kept key interlocutors away from their desk, and by a related row over five Iranians detained by the US military in northern Iraq in January.

On Tuesday, the Iraqi government said it was "intensively" pursuing the release of the five Iranians. An official said: "This will be a factor that will help in the release of the British sailors and marines."

Separately, an Iranian diplomat, Jalal Shafari, who was seized in Baghdad in February was released Monday, but it was unclear if this would affect the case of the 15 Britons.

A compromise in sight, many say

In the 1979-81 crisis, the hostages were not released until the day after Jimmy Carter left office. Some have speculated that the same ignominy might befall Mr. Blair, who is expected to step down this summer. But as oil prices fell sharply on the hopes of a resolution, analysts said there was suddenly a chance that the affair might be over by Easter.

"My personal feeling is that this is nearly over," says Major (ret.) Charles Heyman, a British defense expert. "If it were to drag out, it would slowly but surely bring the international community onside with the UK. The Iranian antenna is well tuned to that risk."

Dr. Hollis at Chatham House, adds: "The ingredients for a diplomatic solution have always been present, but it took a senior figure in Tehran to clarify that that was also what they were looking for, and how to proceed."

Iran wants Britain to apologize for infringing on its territorial waters and vow not to do so again. Britain is refusing to say sorry, insisting that its crew was picked up in Iraqi waters.

But elements of a compromise are discernible: the maritime border has long been undefined and confusing, giving both sides the chance to offer legitimate explanations for their behavior. Britain is ready to promise not to infringe it in the future, and both sides may be interested in closer coordination or communication so that future misunderstandings can be cleared up before they become major incidents.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.