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16 April 2007

Strange victory

The original gamble was born of weakness. But thanks to British errors, Iran has got more than it wa

By Rageh Omaar

It has been the strangest and most unexpected of victories for Iran. The abduction of the 15 British sailors began as a gamble brought on by desperation. In February, two US battle groups had taken up position in the Persian Gulf. President Bush’s “troop surge” was under way, its aim to pacify Baghdad and undercut political groups and militias supported by Tehran. Then US forces pounced on two Iranian diplomats while they were on an official visit to Iraqi Kurdistan as guests of local politicians. Although this attempt failed, five other Iranian diplomats had been seized the previous month in Erbil. Even the protests of the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, had little effect. Iran looked weak. Its image as the power-broker in Iraq and across the region was being challenged.

The Iranians had no bargaining chips. So they went out and grabbed some, in the form of the British sailors. Two weeks later, as the naval personnel were released, what was the result? Iran had won a globally televised propaganda battle, an apparent superiority enhanced by the unedifying spectacle of the sailors selling their stories to the press. Britain had been isolated in its attempts to persuade the United Nations to condemn Tehran’s actions. A surprise diplomatic dividend for Tehran was the divisions exposed between London and Washington over the handling of the crisis.

In the first week of the drama, Tony Blair had one of his characteristic rushes of blood and assumed that the Iranian regime could be intimidated into giving up its adventure if he gave it a bit of megaphone diplomacy, spiced with statements of shock and outrage. The Foreign Office quickly realised this was getting nowhere and that it had no option other than the one offered by Tehran – quiet diplomacy between equals, rather than Blair’s method of master shouting at subordinate. But the United States, as has so often been the case with its policy towards Iraq and Iran, had its own agenda. In a move that showed not only a different outlook, but also an indifference to their allies, US military commanders in the Gulf said that if American sailors had been seized by the Iranians, they would have fought back.

The impact in the Gulf among oil-rich Arab monarchies has been disastrous. These vulnerable but important allies are dependent on the military strength of the UK and the US and the diplomatic credibility of their western protectors. States such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (all of which have pol itically restive Shia populations) have watched in alarm since the Iraq invasion as the demise of US authority in the region takes place simultaneously with the rise of Iranian influence. Now Britain, too, has been made to look weak and ineffective.

In the eyes of Gulf monarchies, having warships sailing up and down Iran’s coastline is one thing, but having the diplomatic credibility to back up that force is quite another. Although the Royal Navy says the unannounced searches in the Gulf of boats suspected of smuggling will continue, I doubt they will. The marines will go through the motions, and who can blame them? Is the navy really going to risk a rerun of the crisis, knowing that next time Tehran is unlikely to be so magnanimous? Again, to a regional audience, this looks like Britain being brought down a peg or two.

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The public reaction in many of the Gulf states has been different from the private but frank comments made by Gulf officials to western journalists. Fear and resentment of the growing power of Persian Iran is a sentiment that Arab rulers feel far more acutely than Arab citizens. Like it or not, Hamas and Hezbollah have widespread support among ordinary people in the Arab world, and the only country that is aiding these organisations is Iran. This, more than any other factor, is what gives Tehran support in the Arab street ahead of most Arab governments.

As a result, considerable parts of public opinion in the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world view Iran as having been unfairly bullied in its own backyard by British and American warships, UK and US troops aggressively boarding ships in the Persian Gulf and humiliating a regional power. For that same reason, these people saw the seizure of the British sailors as the west getting a dose of its own medicine. This matters, because once again, as happened last year during the war between Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah, Iran has widened and exploited the difference in sentiment between the Arab street and Arab rulers.

The crisis need not have ended this way. That it did must be explained in part by a fundamental misreading in Britain of Iranian politics. UK policy-makers work from the clichéd assumption that Iran is run by its maverick president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the British press, the entire Iranian state is personified in Ahmadinejad. This both frustrates and amuses Iranian commentators and politicians (especially those vehemently opposed to the president).

In this sense, Ahmadinejad has become a very useful foil for the men who really control Iran: the National Security Council, which is presided over by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the secretary to the council, Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief negotiator in all key areas, including nuclear talks. It was Larijani who led negotiations with the UK over the abducted sailors. The diplomatic communiqué sent to Blair and to Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, was from him, not Ahmadinejad. But the Iranian president is nothing if not a born performer and he provides good copy for journalists, which is why the only time we heard from him during the entire affair was at the very end, when he held the press conference to announce the sailors’ release.

This essential failure of British analysis has played into Tehran’s hands. The irony is that this latest incident bolstered Ahmadinejad’s position just at a time when economic failings had severely dented his popularity at home. This feat was something that many of his fierce critics in Iran’s parliament had thought impossible.

Perfidious Albion

As a British citizen, I find it impossible not to be struck by how deep and abiding is Britain’s historical image as a du plicitous power eager to exploit Iran. One of the defining moments of Iranian modern history is the overthrow of the democratically elected secular leader Muhammed Mossadeq in a CIA-backed coup in 1953. What every Iranian is still taught and remembers, however, is that the coup was conceived and driven by the UK, which dragged the United States into the plan as a way of protecting Britain’s oil assets in the country. Today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struts the stage, knowing that in the eyes of his people he has taught the old enemy, Perfidious Albion, a lesson.

The Iranian government entered into this crisis hoping at best for the eventual release of its junior diplomats from US custody. Instead, it has emerged with a string of benefits – greater prestige in the region than it has enjoyed for years; victory for the principle that it is better to negotiate than to threaten; divisions at the UN, and differences between the UK and the US. Part of this is a natural reflection of Iran’s true influence in the Middle East, but it is also the product of Blair’s mistaken approach to Tehran. The result? Now that Iran has claimed it can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale, I wonder who will be looking forward more to the next round of negotiations: Tehran or London.