On Iran streets, diverse views on clash over British captives

On vacation when the crisis arose, the Iranian public is now debating what to do.

As Tehran and London squared off over the capture of 15 British sailors and marines, Iranians were on holiday, largely unaware of the magnitude of the latest international quarrel involving their country.

Much of the news about the detainees was broadcast not in native Farsi but in Arabic on a channel controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military unit that seized the British vessels on March 23.

This week, though, Iranians head back to work, newspapers begin publishing again, and the country has started to tune in after two weeks of vacation to mark the Persian New Year.

A Sunday protest of some 200 pro-regime demonstrators at the British Embassy in Tehran – they threw firecrackers and briefly scaled a perimeter fence before being repelled by Iranian police – also helped shift what had seemed to be a debate between Iranian hard-liners and British diplomats to more of a domestic concern.

"This is turning the international community more and more against us," says Shahram Khateri, a veteran of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.

"Maybe the British did enter our waters, but this government must handle the issue in a wiser way and not escalate," he says.

Mashallah, an auto-parts trader who spent seven years in prison after his involvement in leftist activities at the beginning of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, says he can guess what the 15 British marines and sailors may be experiencing.

"This government is expert at psychological pressure," he says, analyzing the performance of the British detainees who have been seen here on videotapes released to the media.

"They may have put them in isolation for two days before their first confession and told them that if you don't apologize, Britain and Iran may go to war," he speculates.

Mahmoud, a sculptor and intellectual, says, "People remember the experience of the US hostage siege and how it became a game of the system against the West. So this time they remain outside the media furor and unmobilized. Once bitten, twice shy."

Iranians have been more interested lately in rising inflation and captivated by the saga of Shahram Jazayeri, the high-profile Iranian financial criminal who escaped in February and was recaptured in Dubai recently, than whether the British detainees were in Iranian or Iraqi waters.

"In the beginning, they tried not to cover the issue, blaming it on the holidays and on that the media was shut," says Mahnaz Tehrani, a producer for Iran's Sedaosima [Sound and Vision] state monopoly, "but once the international media coverage peaked, they broadcast the 'blatant aggression statement.' "

On Monday, state-run radio reported that all of the British captives have confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters. It's a confession that Britain called "stage managed." It also reported, according to the Associated Press, that "positive changes" in Britain's approach to the crisis meant that details of the so-called confessions would not be aired.

Analysts now say there is a lively debate in the government on how to resolve the issue, with the dominant trend insisting that the detainees be processed through Iran's judicial system.

"Such actions can be positive when you know how to stop," says one political analyst who often criticizes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's handling of foreign policy and preferred to remain anonymous. "And I'm worried that they won't know where to stop."

The avidly read Farsi-language Baztab news site suggested in a Sunday article that "Iran is not in need of an apology" and urged the government to put the detainees on trial.

"Putting the aggressors on trial and observing the law is in Iran's interest," says Hamidreza Hajibabayee, a hard-line member of the Majlis [parliament]. "Britain's decision to freeze the relations is in fact good for Iran because we have seen nothing but harm in our relations with Britain."

Sculptor Mahmoud says, "The regime knows that the greatest uniting factor for the people is their dislike of England and its meddling in our history. But the British are even smarter and think one step ahead of the Iranians, so it's quite likely that they prompted this crisis themselves in order to bring pressure to bear on the Islamic Republic."

Indeed, many Iranians remain suspicious of Britain due to its legacy of meddling in their country since the 19th century, and its planning of the US-executed 1953 coup that removed liberal nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The British Embassy sent a mass e-mail on March 29, warning its citizens in Iran to "stay alert and informed, and vigilant as always" while informing them that all bilateral relations with Iran not pertaining to the detainees were being frozen. It followed an August 2006 e-mail in which it noted that "at tense times like this, events can develop unexpectedly and rumors abound," and instructed recipients to report "any signs of an anti-British mood developing."

A Western diplomat monitoring the crisis for his embassy said he believed that Iran "just wanted to prove their point that they're strong," and speculated that the action could be the Revolutionary Guard's way of getting back at Iran's moderate political wing, which was strengthened by last December's city council elections.

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