Britain is urging international allies to join it in suspending official business with Iran in a bid to increase pressure on Tehran to release a group of sailors seized a week ago.
The standoff over the 15 naval personnel captured in the Persian Gulf last Friday is threatening to degenerate into the gravest bilateral dispute since the Salman Rushdie affair. Indeed, escalating demands by Iran and Britain alike are making a trouble-free exit appear less likely for either side.
"There is no easy way out of this," says Mohammad Hadi Semati, an expert at the University of Tehran. "One side has to lose face. Which side? I don't know."
Britain has already announced that all official business with Iran has been suspended, including visits, visas, and support for trade missions. It took its case to the UN Thursday, asking the Security Council to "deplore" Iranian actions. The UN was expected to sign off on the statement Thursday. Iran, meanwhile, suspended a promised release of a female British sailor and insisted that Britain admit it was in Iranian waters.
"They [the British] are now in the region in which, with the excuse of controlling ships that go to Iraq, they want to make it a norm to violate other countries' sovereignty," the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, said Thursday. "But they should know that the cost of this is not cheap."
Analysts warn that a more aggressive stance towards Tehran – a total visa ban, for example, or an asset freeze or trade sanctions – could be counterproductive.
"No one is going to rush into any other punitive measures," says Alex Bigham, an Iran expert at the Foreign Policy Centre, a London think-tank with ties to the Labour Party. "Further down the line, you'd look at suspending all relations.... But there's no great appetite to do that in the short term."
Britain believes that it can get the EU to signal strong support at a foreign ministers meeting Friday. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has already told the Iranians that the EU viewed the detention of the sailors as unacceptable.
"The overall game plan is to encourage the EU countries to consider what we've done, suspending business with Iranian government," says a Foreign Office official, on condition of anonymity.
Analysts are not sure if all European countries will be eager to impair their ties with Iran. "The British are already trying to bring the Europeans on board, and they may or may not be successful," says George Joffe, a Middle East expert at the Centre for International Studies at Cambridge University. "The Europeans may say enough is enough, it's your own fault. After all, Britain has offended the Iranians by leading the demand for sanctions."
Few expect an early resolution to the stand-off. Three years ago, when Iran seized eight British servicemen off the Iran-Iraq coast, the dispute was over in three days; the British acknowledged the personnel might have been in the wrong place and they were quickly released.
This time, British officials are adamant that the unit was inside Iraqi waters, under a UN mandate, when it was seized. The Iranians say the crew strayed into Iranian waters, and want London to admit as much.
Impossible, say the British, scoffing at the way that Tehran changed the coordinates of the spot where it says the March 23 incident occurred, having first pinpointed a location in Iraqi waters. Officials are also furious that Leading Seaman Faye Turney was put on TV and made a statement that the British say amounted to a forced confession of trespassing.
"The British aren't going to comply" with Iranian demands to admit a mistake, says Professor Joffe. "Now we'll see a ratcheting up and it will be a question of who will blink first. The British will probably go next to commercial sanctions. The problem then is that the Iranians will become more and more intransigent."
The intervention by Iran's Mr. Larijani, a conservative close to the supreme religious leader, appeared to indicate a move in that direction, trumping the role played by Iran's foreign ministry, which is often seen as more pragmatic.
"It's a classic Iranian problem with diplomacy," says Professor Semati, noting that Iran has been under pressure from Washington and from UN sanctions over its nuclear program. "If things ratchet up, [Iranian officials] tend to stand firmer, and domestic impulses become more involved in ending the dispute.
"The more public [the British] make it," he adds, "the more difficult it will be to be resolved, from the domestic Iranian political context."
British officials are aware of the need to tread delicately. They acknowledge that a heavy-handed approach could bolster support for the hard-line camp and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps which seized the sailors.
Privately, they are at a loss to explain Iran's motives. Analysts link it to British involvement in UN efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, or to the capture of five Iranians in northern Iraq by US forces in January. A surge in oil prices since the spike in tensions has not gone unnoticed in London.
But some see a more general bravado, a show to the "Great Satan" and "Little Satan." Mr. Bigham notes that the video of the sailors appeared on an international Arabic channel and not on the domestic one. "It's a message to the international community that says 'we are prepared to take any action we want.' "