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by Kimia Sanati

Iran Could Repair Image With Diplomatic Solution to Brit Sailor Arrest

(IPS) TEHRAN -- A week after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the release of 15 British mariners, detained on charges of trespassing into Iranian waters, it is still unclear if he got any mileage out of an incident that may well have sparked off a new war in the Middle East.

On Sunday, speaker of the Majlis (Assembly) Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel told reporters that he thought the release of the Britons, arrested by the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Mar. 23, "appropriate and good."

But comments appearing in the ‘Baztab' news, a hardline news site close to Mohsen Rezaiee, a former chief commander of the IRGC and now secretary of the powerful Expediency Council, were telling. ‘'If they (the Britons) had really trespassed on Iranian waters, they shouldn't have been released. If they hadn't, they shouldn't have been arrested. It was wrong in any case."

"What was all this ado and all the conditions like Britain making an apology or accepting violation of Iranian territory if you wanted to release them with such humiliation? It was better if you showed your Islamic clemency right from the beginning and released them then," one comment in Baztab read.

Where Ahmadinejad described the release as a "present to the British people on the occasion of the Prophet Mohammad's birth anniversary and the Easter and Passover holidays," not everyone quite saw it that way. ‘'By god I was ashamed, Mr. President! President, foreign minister and presidential advisor seeing off the aggressors!!! We were humiliated in the eyes of the world," said a comment in the Baztab.

For its pains the Baztab site was filtered out by a judicial order, four days after the release of the British captives, Thursday

"The release of the British in this manner was staged as a kind of publicity stunt for Ahmadinejad who got yet another chance to appear in front of the cameras, look like a hero forgiving the British sailors and sending them home as a gift to the British people," an observer in Tehran told IPS, asking not to be named.

Domestic pressure after the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued a new resolution on Mar. 24 imposing tougher sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt its nuclear program may have played a part. Concerns about the impact of the sanctions are rather strong among Iranians, many of whom believed the British sailors were arrested in order to divert attention from the more important nuclear issue.

There were also speculations about a tradeoff for the five Iranian diplomats arrested by United States forces on Iran's consulate general in Erbil, Iraq on Jan. 11. But, Sunday saw Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki calling upon the UNSC to intervene in the matter.

According to the foreign ministry's public relations department, Mottaki had in a message asked the UN body to avoid ‘'double standards." "Considering repeated demands from Iranian and Iraqi governments for the freedom of five Iranian diplomats, they are still in custody of foreign forces in Iraq," Mottaki said in the message. "Unfortunately, UNSC has not paid attention to the demands for examining the violation of international laws and principles ruling the diplomatic and consular affairs."

According to the U.S. army the Iranian detainees were not actually diplomats but members of the IRGC and that they were involved in procuring weapons for Iraqi Shiite fighters. But Iran, going by the news reports, has gained consular access to the detainees.

"Ahmadinejad couldn't have made the decision to free the Britons on his own. But he will have to pay the cost of having to justify the act to the Iranian public that is already showing signs of anger over the matter, too," the observer in Tehran said.

Some hardline Iranian newspapers showered praise on Ahmadinejad. The ‘Iran' newspaper, the government mouthpiece, called the act one of "overwhelming diplomacy."

Reformists, however, have been criticizing the government of Ahmadinejad throughout the twelve day standoff -- as much as strict media censorship would allow -- for mismanagement. While stressing Iran's right to be sensitive to its territorial rights and welcoming the release of the sailors, reformists generally maintain that the crisis escalated unnecessarily and could have been avoided or managed and ended more gracefully, efficiently and at less cost for Iran.

If the British sailors were to be pardoned, this could have taken place before or a few days after Blair's threats, an editorial in ‘Aftab-e Yazd,' a moderate reformist daily, said a day after the release of the sailors. "An appropriate response to Blair's threatening statement ą and avoidance of any action that could impair Iran's national pride seemed in order," the editorial said and added that "the releaseą twenty four hours after Blair's threat bestowed no pride to our citizens and can even cause disillusionment among many Iranians."

Iran's Ali Akbar Velayati, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's top advisor in foreign affairs, was quoted by Iranian state TV after the release of the British sailors as saying Britain had made an apology to Iran in a letter submitted to Iranians a day before the release. Britain has, however, strongly denied having made an apology or any concessions to secure the release of its military personnel.

Following the return of the marines to London and a deadly terrorist attack in Basra that killed four British soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter, Tony Blair once again pointed a finger at Iran, saying although there was no established connection between Iran and the attack "there were elements, at least, of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming terrorism in Iraq."

Observers said attempts to show over official TV channels fresh footage of the Britons in captivity and apparently enjoying themselves could also backfire on Ahmadinejad.

‘Al-Alam,' Iran's Arabic language channel, has on the weekend shown footage of the captives relaxing and engaged in activities such as table-tennis or enjoying their meals. ‘'These pictures contradict what they (the Britons) said when they reached home," the channel's anchor said.

‘'Many Iranians are likely to be put off by the sight of what were alleged to be spies being treated so well," said a viewer. News of attempts by the former captives to sell their stories are also being looked at askance here.

Tuesday's ‘Jomhuri Eslami,' a hard line paper, ran an op-ed that said the British government and the marines did not deserve Islamic clemency. "Next time they are arrested in Iranian waters, they wouldn't be treated the same way because they showed in practice that are not worthy of such humane treatment by Iran."

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Albion Monitor   April 10, 2007   (

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