WASHINGTON - The drama surrounding the release of 15 British sailors and marines after 12 days in Iranian captivity was designed to convey two key messages that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush would do well to heed, say experts here.First, the Britons' original capture by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard near the entry to the disputed Shatt-al-Arab waterway was meant to demonstrate that, despite its conventional military weakness and diplomatic isolation, Iran retains the ability to strike at western interests when it feels sufficiently provoked.
Second, when western powers engage Iran with respect and as an equal, they are more likely to get what they want than when they take a confrontational path designed to bully or humiliate the regime.
While neither message is likely to be well received either at the White House or among the neo-conservative and other right-wing pundits who have tried hard to depict the incident as the latest sign of Islamic or Persian barbarism, properly understood, they could form the basis of a new approach capable of yielding results, according to Juan Cole, a regional expert at the University of Michigan.
''The British have now opened a channel,'' he told IPS. ''Although this incident really did constitute a crisis -- one that might have escalated to very dangerous levels -- the resolution was diplomatic, and that diplomatic resolution could contain the seeds for future diplomacy, if the British and the Americans are so inclined.''
The announcement on Wednesday, that the sailors and marines were being released in honour of the Prophet Mohammed's forthcoming birthday and the Christian Easter holiday, was made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who then met with the captives personally.
''Our government has pardoned them; it is a gift from our people,'' he said, adding that the gesture had ''nothing to do'' with Tuesday's release in Iraq of a senior Iranian diplomat who was abducted two months ago reportedly by a special Iraqi intelligence agency that works closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). ''We approached the subject on a humanitarian basis. It was a unilateral decision on our end,'' he insisted.
Nonetheless, the diplomat's release, as well as reports that Tehran also just received assurances that it would be given consular access to five alleged Revolutionary Guard officers seized by U.S. forces at an Iranian liaison office in Arbil nearly three months ago, suggested that Wednesday's events were more than just coincidence, although both London and Washington, like Ahmadinejad, insisted there were no quid pro quos.
''I personally believe that the U.S. action (in Arbil) .accounts for why Iran chose to stage its capture of the British sailors,'' noted Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in White House under former President Jimmy Carter. ''Iran appears to have gained something from its pressure tactics.''
That assessment was shared by Trita Parsi, president of the U.S. National Iranian American Council (NIAC). ''By taking the (British) soft targets, the Iranians put pressure on the U.S..''
In addition to collecting bargaining chips, the original capture had other purposes, as well, including rallying nationalist sentiment behind the regime just as it faced the imposition by the UN Security Council of a new round of sanctions for rejecting demands to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.
As important, however, was the message Tehran wished to convey to the West that it could indeed respond to what it saw as U.S. provocations in ways that could harm or embarrass its allies.
''In seizing the Iranians, who after all, had been invited by the Iraqi authorities, the Americans were seen as behaving aggressively,'' according to Cole. ''Now, the Iranians have demonstrated that the Anglo-American forces are not in a strong enough position to afford to do these things. They can play tit for tat.''
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''It is a reminder that Iran has quite an array of asymmetrical options available to it to counter indirectly the actions of the U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere,'' Sick agreed.
At the same time, according to Sick, Tehran's behaviour during much of the crisis -- including both the seizure itself, the precise location of which remains a matter of dispute, and its use of ''confessions'' by the British captives and threats to put them on trial -- will probably have cost it much-needed international support.
''I suspect that recognition of this fact accounts for Iran's desire to end this dispute as promptly as possible,'' said Sick. ''For the same reason, I suspect that this ploy will not be repeated any time soon.''
''I think the Iranians thought it was better to declare victory and put an end to the crisis before there was any further escalation,'' noted Parsi.
At the same time, however, Parsi and other analysts said that the point at which victory could be declared was reached because of important changes in the British approach to the crisis.
While London officials have said the turning point came Monday, when Iran's national security chief, Ali Larijani, gave a conciliatory interview to Britain's Channel Four television -- an interview that was followed by a critical conversation between Larijani and Blair's top foreign-policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, according to 'The Independent' -- Cole points to a shift in the British stance from one of threats and demands to a more diplomatic approach over the weekend, including confirmation by British Defence Secretary Des Browne that London was ''in direct bilateral communication with the Iranians.''
''These sorts of incidents are always to some extent about face, and apparently the Iranians felt that when Britain agreed to enter into direct bilateral negotiations, Iran had gained enough face to be magnanimous,'' he said. ''On Sunday, they were admitted as equals, not scolded as little children. That created the opening for (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to climb down and save face.''
''Iranians have been signalling repeatedly, and not just during this crisis, that they will engage diplomatically, but without preconditions and on the basis of equality,'' said William Beeman, an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota. ''So now they say, 'You see, when we have the upper hand, you see how magnanimous we are; we are a charitable, civilized people. We are reasonable. You can talk with us'.''
''The Iranian message is that if you deal with us respectfully, through incentives, then things can get resolved rather quickly,'' said Parsi. ''If you only resort to force or impose sanctions at the UN Security Council, then you'll only get stuck, and Iran will respond in kind. They're hoping that the West gets the impression that that is the incentive structure through which it can make progress with Iran. Whether that will be understood in the West is obviously a complete different question.''
The Bush administration's relative silence during the crisis may also have conveyed, inadvertently perhaps, another message -- that, despite widespread speculation that its recent military build-up in the Gulf was intended to prepare the grounds for an attack on Iran, it had no wish to do so, at least for the moment.
''The Iranian capture of 15 (British) military personnel could certainly have been used as .a pretext (for a military strike), since it could easily have escalated to a full-fledged military crisis,'' according to Sick. ''I regard the absence of unbridled escalation in this case as a significant indicator that the U.S. desire for a strike may be more muted than it has been portrayed.''
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.