British-Iranian dispute enmeshed in tangled history

After nearly a week, Iran and Britain are no closer to resolving a territorial-waters dispute that led to the capture and arrest of 15 British navy personnel.

In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said that to resolve the standoff, Britain must admit that the troops had entered Iranian waters. Mr. Mottaki offered to let UK officials visit the captured Royal Navy personnel, but he backed away from his earlier claims that Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the only woman on the British crew, would be released by Thursday. The AP said that despite Mottaki's statements – Iran's first offer to end the dispute since it began on Friday – "British acquiescence appeared unlikely."

Mottaki said that if the alleged entry into Iranian waters was a mistake "this can be solved. But they have to show that it was a mistake. That will help us to end this issue."

The offer came at the end of a day of rising tensions. On Wednesday, Britain announced that it was suspending bilateral ties with the Mideast state. The same day, the captives appeared on Al-Alam, Iran's Arabic-language station. In the video, Ms. Turney is seen wearing a headscarf and apologizing for "obviously" trespassing in Iranian waters. Speaking to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the broadcast "completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal."

Few Western news outlets give credence to Iran's claim that the British had strayed 500 meters into Iranian waters. The Telegraph says that GPS coordinates released by the Ministry of Defense show that their troops were well outside of Iranian territory. What's more, according to the BBC, Iran at first claimed that the capture occurred at one set of coordinates, and when it was pointed out that this was in Iraqi waters, they gave a second reading, this time in Iranian territory.

Many are left speculating over Iran's intentions. In attempting to explain the actions, analysts have invoked everything from the country's nuclear standoff with the West, to stepped-up US actions against Iran, to a border dispute dating from the 17th century.

Dr. Ali Pahlavan, the editor of an independent newspaper published in Tehran, told the BBC that he sees his country's actions as an attempt to rebuke Great Britain for its role in supporting a new United Nations Security Council resolution imposing fresh sanctions over Iran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The sanctions, which were approved unanimously the day after the arrests were made, banned all arms exports to Iran and froze the assets of several officials linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

My understanding of the situation is that this could be a reaction to the UN sanctions which were passed two days ago... the revolutionary guards had promised that some sort of reaction would be forthcoming from Iran.

The revolutionary guards are a very hard line, ultra-conservative wing of the regime who believe that the US and Britain need to be challenged in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East... their interests need to be challenged in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iraq and elsewhere.

So this could be part of the strategy to challenge the British and American supremacy in this part of the world which is troubling. It could lead to confrontation and be a trigger and which could lead to escalation.

Other analysts seem to agree that the capture was planned in advance. Frances Harrison, the BBC correspondent in Iran, links the arrests to what she calls an "unusually aggressive speech" last week by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

[Khamenei] said: "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 the invading enemies."

It was an oddly defiant and hostile tone to strike for a new year speech.

One commentator, Sayeed Laylaz, has drawn a parallel with President George W Bush's state of the nation address in January, which was followed immediately by a US attack on an Iranian office in Irbil in northern Iraq and the seizure of five Iranians who are still being held by the US. ...

Mr Laylaz points out that the speech of Mr Khamenei was swiftly followed by the capture of the British sailors.

Some draw a more explicit link to the January raid in Irbil. Richard Beeston, the diplomatic editor of The Times of London, writes in an analysis that "privately there is acknowledgement that [the British sailors'] fate is bound closely to that of the Iranian captives" seized by the US.

Iranian officials speculated that the way to win the freedom of their comrades was to capture American or British soldiers and arrange a prisoner swap. Reza Faker, a writer for the Revolutionary Guards' newspaper Subhi Sadek, said: "We have the ability to capture a nice bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks." Reza Zakeri, of President Ahmadinejad's office, said that capturing a Western soldier was easier than acquiring a cheaply made Chinese product.

Many analyses contrast the current crisis with a 2004 incident in which Iranians arrested eight British servicemen on patrol in disputed waters between Iran and Iraq. Those servicemen were released three days later, after making a televised apology for straying into Iran. Writing in the The Scotsman, an Edinburgh daily, Dr. Ali Ansari, the director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews university, says that the diplomatic landscape is more sensitive today.

Because this incident occurred on the eve of a crunch meeting at the UN to call Iran to account over its nuclear programme, tensions are much higher than in 2004.

We are also dealing with an entirely different regime from the previous one under president Khatami, who favoured conciliation over confrontation.

In contrast, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has clashed repeatedly with western governments over his refusal to cooperate with inspectors over his nuclear programme.

For all the possible political motives however, the main cause of the showdown could be a centuries-old dispute over the water border between Iran and Iraq. It began with the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab between the Persian and Ottoman empires, which divided the land without a careful survey. Disagreements through the 1980s, and some of the fiercest fighting in the eight-year war between the two nations occurred along this border. The Associated Press quotes Lawrence G. Potter, an associate professor of international affairs at Columbia University, who says that even to this day the exact demarcation has not been established. "The problem is that nobody knows where the border is," Potter said. "The British might have thought they were on their side, the Iranians might have thought they were on their side."

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