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Iran: Public Mostly Supports Detention Of Britons

By Vahid Sepehri

April 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's extended Norouz (New Year) holidays and a parliamentary recess have resulted in little public comments in Iran about the March 23 detentions of 15 British naval personnel in the Persian Gulf, most politicians and other groups have been supportive of the government's action as the proper response to a perceived violation of Iran's territorial waters.

The most violent public response to the detention of the Britons took place on April 1 outside the British Embassy in Tehran, when more than 100 student members of the Basij militia -- a force affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps -- pelted the compound with stones, bricks, and firecrackers, AFP reported.

The protesters chanted slogans against Great Britain, Israel, and the United States, while some placards even called for the Britons to be executed.

'House Of Spies'

A man named Balukat, identified as the secretary of the Union of Islamic Associations of Independent Students of State Universities, told the gathering that the government must not retreat "a fraction" from its positions, and he threatened a replay of the 1979 attack and kidnapping of diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy if Britain "continues this way," ISNA reported.

Balukat added that "If Britain continues to talk rubbish, we shall occupy this embassy." He expressed regret, as did other demonstrators, at the continuing presence in Tehran of a British Embassy as "the representative of arrogance," a term used in Iran to denote the great powers.

The Union of Islamic Associations, which reportedly organized the demonstration, issued a statement on April 1 asking for the closure of the "house of spies," or Britain's Embassy. It also accused Great Britain of a litany of crimes, including backing banditry and separatism in some areas of Iran, and "historical interferences and treacheries," ISNA reported. This was a reference to Britain's influential role in Iranian politics from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, when it was the dominant imperial power in the Middle East.

The next day, a statement was issued by 266 student Basij groups from universities around the country, saying that the closing of the "den of corruption of the old devil, Britain" -- a place it alleged is merely pretending to be an embassy -- "is the least of the serious demands" of the third generation of postrevolutionary Iranians, ISNA reported.

Standing Up To 'Imperialism'

Such statements set the general tone of comments made in recent days by Iranian officialdom, politicians, and "the public." There have been numerous references to Britain as a colonial or imperialist power, in an enthusiastic revival of the vocabulary of zealous revolutionaries and militants of the 1970s and 1980s.

The emerging picture has been of Great Britain on the one side -- the aging colonial power that persists with its overbearing, imperialist ways in spite of declining capabilities -- and Iran on the other side: the victim of imperialism that relies on international laws and its righteous convictions.

The Basij Organization of the Medical Society, a grouping of physicians who are members of the Basij militia, issued a statement on April 1 denouncing the "diabolical presence" of the "arrogant government of America and its British minion" in the Middle East, IRNA reported.

It observed that Britain is still dreaming of ruling the world as it did in the 19th century. In the statement, "doctors and paramedics, and [Iran's] martial nation" urged the government to cut ties with Britain and prosecute the servicemen "on the basis of international laws, so that all arrogant powers know" that Iran disallows violations of its territory.

Politicians' Legal Arguments

Politicians have spoken with a little more moderation of the "legal" aspects of the dispute. Mariam Behruzi, the secretary of the Zeinab Society, a conservative political group, said in Tehran on March 31 that Iran must give a legal and "correct" response to Britain's "forceful" ways," ISNA reported. "We have not forgotten the forceful conduct they had with us [in the 1920s and 1930s], and they still look at us in the same way," she said.

Behruzi said the British personnel have admitted to violating Iran's maritime borders, so an appropriate response from Iran would ensure "tension is removed from the region and Iran." She said the one woman being held should be released "out of respect for being a woman." Her release, Behruzi said, would show the "special position" of women in Iran.

Elham Aminzadeh, a parliamentarian from Tehran and member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, discussed with Fars news agency on April 2 the legal aspects of the alleged violation of Iranian territory.

Aminzadeh said the 1975 Algiers agreement between Iran and Iraq had delineated their respective territorial and navigable waters, and the "occupying British government in Iraq" had to respect agreements relevant to that treaty. She said international law requires Britain to apologize to Iran and restore its violated rights, while Iran could take its case to the UN Security Council.

She said the British government seems to not be paying attention to the "admissions of guilt" made by the British captives that have been aired on Iranian television. Aminzadeh said the "best thing Iran can do" is to register the violation as a "historical fact" through press conferences and "trials that may be held," Fars reported. She said any trial of the Britons should be broadcast so their "confessions on their violation" of Iranian waters "are entirely registered and documented."

Who To Believe?

The entire British detainee incident is, in some respects, reminiscent of the dispute over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

In both disputes, Iran portrays itself as scrupulously abiding by international laws, while officials accuse Western powers of being forceful, hostile, and disrespectful of international treaties. The Iranian assertions go against the apparent spirit of Western media reports, which cite the legal arguments of both sides but present each dispute as a political and ideological one between Western powers and a country seen by some as a rogue state.

A prominent characteristic of Iran's legal arguments is that they have failed to sway such bodies as the European Union or the United Nations. They can be described as being as confusing and that they raise more questions than they answer.

If both sides insist they have evidence pinpointing exactly where the British service personnel were at the time of their arrest then who, the observer may wonder, is telling the truth?

As with the nuclear impasse, questions arise about who is the more trustworthy international agent -- Britain or Iran? Or, who is more likely to enjoy the sympathy of a global news-viewing public? But while insisting on legal positions, Iran has shown by broadcasting the Britons' "confessions" that it is not oblivious to the impact of psychological pressures and public posturing, the very same tactics it claims the West has used against Iran.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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