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

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

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.

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.

"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."

"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.

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