Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad portrayed the release of fifteen British military personnel (al-Jazeera) Wednesday as a magnanimous gesture timed with special occasions for both Muslims and Christians. Ahmadinejad said the decision came after British officials agreed the alleged trespassing (BBC) in their territorial waters would not be repeated. British officials kept largely mum but indicated they were prepared to further press for Iran’s isolation if the captives were not released. Meanwhile, the release this week of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad, coupled with signals of opening access to five other Iranian detainees seized in northern Iraq, seemed to indicate some deal-making in the works (FT), though Iranian officials say the two events are not related. Either way, the resolution of the dispute makes for one less crisis in a region badly in need of a respite.
Those keeping tabs on Iran’s foreign policy power structure might score one (BBC) for the pragmatists. But it was hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards who fomented the crisis (NYT) in the first place, reportedly leaving the Iranian foreign ministry in the dark after the initial seizures on March 23. Iranian expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment said the incident highlighted a “mood of schizophrenia” in Iran in which both diplomacy and confrontation are on display. The incident further demonstrates that Ahmadinejad himself, though allied with hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards, is by no means in complete control of foreign policy.
The Iranian government, divided or not, is clearly under pressure from new UN sanctions and a U.S.-led effort to ratchet up preexisting financial sanctions. Matthew Levitt, an expert on terrorism financing at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says in a new CFR.org podcast that such targeted financial measures are beginning to take a toll on Iran and urges they be intensified.
Other voices are urging Washington to step up its diplomatic efforts to ease the nuclear impasse. CFR’s Lee Feinstein and Michael Levi, writing in the IHT days before the release of the captives, urged the Bush administration to use any breakthrough on the crisis to renew efforts to engage Tehran. Max Hastings, an expert on Iran, echoed this view in the New York Times, writing: “We must keep talking to the Iranians, offering carrots even when these are contemptuously tossed into the gutter, because there is no credible alternative.” A Boston Globe editorial cited lessons from British composure in handling the standoff over captives, saying London refused to “play into the hands of hardliners.”
U.S. officials, while condemning the Iranian seizure, said they still plan to attend the next round of the regional conference on Iraq, which Iranian officials are also expected to attend. But there have been reports the Iranian foreign minister might skip the meetings (Turkish Weekly) if the United States does not release members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards detained in Iraq. In his press conference on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad made a nebulous gesture to the White House, saying “If Mr. Bush and his government change their behavior…this side [Iran] has the ability to reconsider.” He did not specify which changes Iran seeks.