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Release of British Sailors Leaves Unanswered Questions

04 April 2007

The end of the standoff between Britain and Iran still leaves many questions unanswered. Chief among them is why Iran took such a deliberately provocative action as seizing British sailors and marines. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, many analysts believe the heart of the matter lies in the struggle between Iran and the United States for influence in Iraq and the Middle East.

In January, U.S. forces arrested five Iranian men in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil. On March 23, Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf.

On Wednesday, Iranian President announced he was, to use his term, pardoning the 15 captured British service members for what Tehran claims was a violation of Iranian territorial waters. Meanwhile, Iran's official news agency, Irna, says an envoy will meet with the Iranians detained in Irbil in January, whom the U.S. says Tehran sent to Iraq to support militants. Iran says they are diplomats.

Also, on Tuesday, an Iranian diplomat held in Baghdad by unidentified gunmen was suddenly freed.

U.S., British, and Iraqi officials disavow any connection between the Iranians detained in Iraq and the Britons captured by Iran, and say there is no prisoner swap. But Reva Bhalla, an Iran specialist at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, is one of those analysts who says the two events are indeed linked as part of a struggle between Iran and the United States for influence in Iraq and the Middle East.

"Those incidents are very connected," said Reva Bhalla. "The U.S. kind of showed how aggressive it can get in Iraq, and that was a clear signal to the Iranians. And now this was just a way to come back. This is far from over. We're going to see more of these tit-for-tat moves. But the negotiations are certainly reaching a very intense point for Iraq."

In recent months President Bush has taken a tough line against Iran, not only for its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, but for what the administration says is Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents.

Ken Katzman, an Iran analyst for the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, agrees that there is a strong linkage. Katzman believes the capture of the British sailors and marines was just one option that is part of a larger package of Iranian moves against the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq.

"I think there probably was a joint decision that once President Bush announced his much more robust or assertive policy against Iran inside Iraq, I think the Iranians put their heads together and came up with some sort of a package of steps that they might take that might counter President Bush's new policy," said Ken Katzman. "And seizing coalition sailors in the Iraq waterways was probably one on the menu that they developed, and they decided to go with it."

It is not known who in Iran actually ordered the operation against the British sailors and marines. But although President Ahmadinejad is a hardliner, some analysts believes the order may have come directly from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Katzman says Iran already felt its back was against the wall with U.N. sanctions imposed on the Iranian government over its alleged bid to build a nuclear weapon.

"In some ways Iran felt cornered," he said. "It's facing pressure in the Security Council. It's facing pressure in Iraq from the United States. It's facing pressure in the Gulf. It's facing pressure through sanctions, economic pressure, financial pressure, banking pressure. So I think Iran wanted to develop a package of options that would give it leverage back again. And I think this [seizure] was on that list."

Wayne White, a former senior State Department Middle East analyst, says the linkage between the U.S. detention of the Iranians in Iraq and the seizure of the British sailors would seem clear to Iran. He says that once Iran saw it was not going to get a prisoner swap, officials there decided to dump the problem.

"It could have been one reason why it wasn't linked overtly is that it was thought to be obvious on the part of the Iranians that there would be this link and that's why we might do something like this [Iranian capture], and recognizing that there was this negative blowback for what they did in whatever waters, that they couldn't hold out for a trade," said Wayne White.

White adds that the Iranian seizure has only reinforced the international image of Iran as, in his words, "irresponsible, dangerous, and unpredictable."

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