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Beyond the British Captives

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 3, 2007


From the moment it began, it was clear the confrontation between Iran and Britain over the capture of fifteen British military personnel would be no isolated incident. First, there is the nuclear issue. Britain has sought to internationalize the dispute by raising complaints at the UN Security Council and European Union, both of which are involved in levying sanctions against the regime over its refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. It remains unclear if the seizure of the British naval personnel was in response to the latest round of UN sanctions against Iran. Also, Iran’s handling of the crisis—by airing footage of the sailors giving what the British government says are forced confessions—could further isolate it (USAToday). Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the regime already “has awful public diplomacy” (PBS). Even Russia, one of Iran’s main economic allies, has distanced itself from Tehran in recent weeks, although it did press to soften last week’s Security Council statement related to Iran’s seizure of the British personnel.

Second, the ongoing crisis may affect multilateral negotiations on Iraqi security issues. An upcoming regional conference—a follow-up to the March 10 meeting, which would bring senior U.S. and Iranian diplomats in the same room to discuss Iraq—has been called into question because of the current standoff over the abducted sailors. No venue or date has yet been set. News reports also suggest the Iranian foreign minister would be a no-show (Turkish Weekly) as long as the United States still has members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in custody in Iraq. But a State Department spokesperson said Washington still planned to attend the next round of the conference.

Finally, the hostage crisis raises important international legal issues, related to both the Law of the Sea and the treatment of detainees. Britain claims Iran violated international law by parading the sailors on television and extracting forced confessions. “They are entitled to contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and they may not be used as hostages (LAT),” write attorneys David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey. Tehran claims the British sailors wandered illegally into Iranian waters and therefore will be tried in Iran. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, an Iranian expert, reckons the dispute may be resolved in either the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. One potential consequence of action by the Law of the Sea panel, he writes, is the weakening of U.S.-led efforts to interdict shipping to and from nuclear states like North Korea as part of its Proliferation Security Initiative (Asia Times).

Meanwhile, the crisis has put the United States in a bind. Some experts say diplomacy remains the best option, not military escalation. “We must keep talking to the Iranians, offering carrots even when these are contemptuously tossed into the gutter, because there is no credible alternative,” writes Max Hastings, an expert on Iran, in the New York Times. Thomas G. McInerney, former assistant vice chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, recommends in the Wall Street Journal stricter sanctions coupled with “minimal military pressure,” which would include tit-for-tat air strikes every time Iranian-made roadside bombs go off in Iraq. William M. Arkin, a national security expert and blogger, calls this approach “idiocy” because it wrongly assumes Iranian leaders control what happens on the ground in Iraq, and that such U.S. air strikes would be effective.

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