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When hard-liners play hardball

Iran’s tough stance in the the standoff over 15 captured British sailors is a demonstration of the power of hard-liners unafraid to confront the West, analysts say.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iran’s tough stance in the the standoff over 15 captured British sailors is a demonstration of the power of hard-liners unafraid to confront the West, analysts say.

After several days of tough talk and threats to isolate Iran, Britain offered to consider discussing ways to avoid disputes in the contested waters of the Persian Gulf, an official said Monday.

For their part, the Iranians pledged not to air more videos of the captured service members, citing “positive changes” in the British position.

The 15 Britons were detained by Iranian naval units on March 23 while patrolling for smugglers as part of a U.N.-mandated force monitoring the Persian Gulf. They were seized by Iranian naval units near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran.

The comments from the British official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the crisis, clear signs over the weekend that Iran was prepared to hang tough.

On Sunday, two of the sailors appeared on state TV, saying they trespassed into Iranian waters, and about 200 angry Iranian youths threw rocks and firecrackers at the British Embassy and unsuccessfully tried to rush its grounds.

Iranian students from several universities shouted “Death to Britain!” and “Death to America!” and demanded the government shut down the “den of spies” — echoes of slogans from a crisis of a generation ago, when American captives were held hostage by Tehran for 444 days.

Brushing back diplomacy
Iran has brushed aside diplomatic overtures from the European Union, Japan and Turkey in recent days. And hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken a higher-profile role, declaring in his most extensive comments on the crisis that Britain and its allies were “arrogant and selfish” for not apologizing over what he called the Britons’ incursion into Iranian waters.

“This is going to be a prolonged problem,” said Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist at the United Arab Emirates University in Dubai. “There are parties in Iran who would like to turn this into another test of strong will, and to show that Iran is capable of making the West meet its demands.”

The Iranians’ desire to demonstrate strength is probably behind a reversal in fortunes last week, when it first appeared that the Iranians were looking for a way to end the standoff quickly.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Wednesday that the only woman captive, Faye Turney, would be released soon. Within hours though, the Iranians were rolling back on that timetable, saying that Britain’s “bad behavior” had prompted a delay.

Hard-liners within the Iranian leadership may have delayed the release, believing that Iran needed to assert itself at a time when it feels under threat from the West, some analysts said.

“They are saying they are a power to be reckoned with in the region,” said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East expert from the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “It’s a very dangerous game. Anything can go wrong at any moment.”

Britain rules out apology
British officials have ruled out Iran’s demand that they apologize for the alleged “illegal entry” of the sailors and marines into Iranian territory. Prime Minister Tony Blair insists the seizure occurred well inside Iraqi waters.

But with the stakes high and options few, Britain had to make some sort of gesture toward the Iranian position by offering to discuss ways of avoid misunderstandings over the territorial issues.

“The responsible way forward is to continue the often unglamorous, but important and quiet diplomatic work to get our personnel home,” Transport Minister Douglas Alexander told the British Broadcasting Corp., on Sunday.

National pride has always been strong in Iran and hard-liners have often successfully used it to rally domestic support, analysts note.

“For years, Britain has been doing whatever it could against Iran in various fields, such as the nuclear issue. They have to learn that it costs something,” said Mahmoud Jafari, a 37-year-old teacher.

Public support for the government could prove a turnaround in Iran, where even conservative backers of Ahmadinejad had been criticizing him for focusing too heavily on confrontation with the West while ignoring domestic problems like high unemployment.