The United States’ cold war with Iran has taken aseries of sinister turns in recent weeks. Hopes of regionalco-operation over Iraq’s future are just one victim ofWashington’s drive to apply the thumbscrews.
The good news was Tehran’s release of 15 British sailors andmarines, and the freeing in Baghdad of Jalal Sharafi, secondsecretary in Iran’s embassy, after his kidnap two months agoapparently by Iraqi special forces.
But the bad news was weightier. Washington has now allegedTehran has supplied lethal weaponry not just to insurgentsin Iraq but to the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
In turn, there is increasing anger in Tehran over thedetention since January of five Iranians seized by US forcesfrom a consulate building in Arbil, northern Iraq. The case,which began shortly after George Bush announced a ‘new Iraqstrategy’ that basically consisted of countering Iran, isfor Tehran a disturbing sign of hostile US intentions.
Rumors of tit-for-tat seizures were encouraged by thedisappearance of a former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, inIran’s Kish island in early March, with mystery surroundinghis motives for the trip and what happened to him after hemet a black American who fled to Iran in 1980 afterassassinating a former diplomat under the Shah.
Meanwhile, Ali-Reza Asgari, the former deputy Iraniandefense minister, is still missing after disappearing inTurkey either in December or February. Political opinion inTehran divides between thinking he defected and thinking hewas kidnapped by the US or Israelis.
While Iranian officials continue to emphasize their opennessto “serious” talks over their nuclear program, Tehran haspressed ahead with uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant,despite two UN security council resolutions demanding itsuspend all atomic activities barring the preparation of theRussian-built reactor at Bushehr.
The most tangible pressure on Iran is Washington’s militarybuild-up in the region’s waters, especially with the arrivalin early May of a additional aircraft carrier, the Nimitzalong with its strike fleet.
Given the wider picture, the case of the 15 Britons wasalmost light relief. The world watched a theatrical 13 daysof televised “confessions,” tub-thumping from British primeminister Tony Blair, and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejadannouncing their release as a gesture of Islamicmagnanimity.
Iran, Britain and the US all deny any links between the fateof the 15 and the ‘Arbil five’ or Sharafi. But many saw morethan coincidence in the timing of Sharafi’s release.
Nonetheless, the freeing of the 15 Britons did follow quietcontact between Blair’s office and Ali Larijani, Iran’s topsecurity official, who apparently co-ordinated Iran’shandling of the crisis. It is unclear what Britain promised,if anything, although Ahmadinejad said a letter [fromforeign secretary Margaret Beckett] has said there would be“no repetition” of the incident. Iran gave no indicationBritain has accepted its demand for an apology andAhmadinejad noted that “the British government was not evenbrave enough to tell their people the truth.”
The release also came only after London toned down itsrhetoric. Tehran-based diplomats, led by ambassador GeoffreyAdams, had argued from the beginning that a “softly, softly”approach was more likely to lead to an early release.
And despite all the speculation outside Iran about conflictswithin the political elite over the crisis, there was aremarkable level of agreement. Indeed, the crisis over theBritish sailors and marines encouraged a closing of ranksafter heated arguments in recent months over the economicmanagement of Mr Ahmadinejad and aspects of nuclear policy.
Both conservative and reformist newspapers, which act partlyas mouthpieces of political currents in the absence ofeffective parties, were united in their support for Iran’sposition in the stand-off over the detained Britons.
Etemad-e Melli, a reformist paper critical of Ahmadinejad,accused Britain of pushing a “crisis scenario” to preparewider confrontation with Iran and relieve the pressure on MrBlair over the situation in Iraq. Officials close to AkbarHashemi Rafsanjani, former president and still influentialconservative pragmatist, said they feared the crisis was apretext for a US and UK military attack.
However confusing the details, the direction is clear. TheUS administration believes that increasing pressure withthrough sanctions and a military build-up will lead to splitin Iran’s political elite and force the leadership toreverse nuclear policy and abandon Iran’s relationship withIraqi Shia groups, Hizbollah and Palestinian groups.
It is a dangerous strategy based on assumptions thatunderestimate Iranian nationalism and the commitment of itspolitical class. Iranian military commanders who as youngmen fought in the trenches of the 1980-88 war with Saddam’sIraq will not have been cowered by British forces makingtelevised confessions after a few days’ captivity and laterselling their spiced-up stories to the highest bidder.
But, at bottom, the Bush administration believes the 1979Revolution as boil that can still be lanced. And if onlyIran can be changed, then the wider region will belatedlyenter the new American century.
Gareth Smyth is The Financial Times Tehran correspondent