April 4, 2007

Questions abound after British sailors released

This article appeared on MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

The Iranians have decided to release the 15 British sailors and Marines they have held hostage for over 12 days. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he had “pardoned” the British during the celebration of the birth of the prophet, which this year almost coincides with Easter. To the world, he appears to have made a magnanimous gesture.

Good news, of course, but now comes the post mortem. There are many questions to be answered, not the least of which are what did the British give to secure the release of their service members, and will Iran pay a price for their action?

Most of the world believes the British were operating in Iraqi waters and this whole affair was engineered by the Iranians to draw attention from its nuclear program. Inside Iran, the affair may have played well - distrust of the British is an ingrained emotion. It was Britain, after all, that granted Iraq total sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab when they created the country in the aftermath of World War One. It is that same body of water that sparked decades of disputes between Iran and Iraq, including 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. It is also the venue of the current Iranian action against the British anti-smuggling team. The current border in the waterway is the thalweg, the deepest part of the channel, not always easy to define – confrontations are probably unavoidable.

So what did the British give to secure the release of their service members? The Royal Navy has always maintained that their naval units were operating inside Iraqi territorial waters, and it appears that stance has not changed. That said, several of the 15 Britons did make “confessions” on Iranian television. I suspect they will be called on to explain that decision. It’s a tough call for a detainee to make – do I go on television and perform as demanded to prevent mistreatment of my subordinates, do I appear to send a message to my government and family that I am alive and well, or refuse to comply and suffer the consequences? I am sure the Royal Navy will ask.

Probably more important in the long run, what price does Iran pay? In recent days, some commentators believe Iran will emerge from this situation as the winner. How can that be? They precipitated the crisis. The immediate reaction to the “pardon” and release is that the Iranians are the good guys in this. I hope not. Ahmadinejad found a face-saving way out of a mess he created – nothing more.

The Iranians need to be held accountable for this charade. They probably won’t. That may be in fact the British accommodation.