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The Next Challenge with Iran

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 5, 2007

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Fifteen sailors and marines are back in British custody, but the fallout from the standoff over the captives remains far from clear. The episode brought into high relief well-known rifts within Iran’s foreign policy establishment between hard-liners and pragmatists. “The incident says much about the volatile mixture of confidence and paranoia that swirls in Tehran these days,” writes the Economist. But it also may have undermined the Islamic regime and added to its isolation. Middle East expert Juan Cole says in a new interview with CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman that Iran's Supreme Leader used the incident to “whip up Iranian nationalistic sentiments.” But in doing so, Tehran may have “put short-term tactics at the expense of long-term vision,” Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told NPR. The crisis also brought the actions of Iraq’s shadowy Revolutionary Guards, which orchestrated the seizure, out into the open. Mohsen Sazegara, one of the group’s founding fathers, calls the guards “a kind of government inside the government (NPR) of Iran.”

The captives crisis also underscored tensions in the Persian Gulf, whose waterways traffic 20 percent (WSJ) of the world’s oil supplies. With fresh UN sanctions imposed on Iran, U.S. foreign policymakers are debating how the crisis might affect their own stance against Tehran’s nuclear program. That is, does the episode demonstrate that Iranians respond more promptly to force or conciliation? CFR’s Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh argue Iran “will respond to what it perceives as flexibility with pragmatism” (NYT). Just as the United States courted China under President Nixon, they argue, Washington must make unilateral gestures that “gradually breach the walls of mistrust.” These could include lifting financial sanctions targeting Iranian banks and removing U.S. naval deployments in the Persian Gulf. The Wall Street Journal demurs, insisting the “lesson is for the world to increase the diplomatic and sanctions pressure in response to Iran’s threatening behavior and continued nuclear program.”

Whatever the reaction from Washington, the hostage standoff has important implications for Iraq. Some British analysts say the seizure of the marines and sailors was a direct response to the U.S. seizure of five Revolutionary Guards operatives in Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials, though 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 an apparent nod to American pragmatists, Washington appears to be entertaining an informal offer from Tehran to send an envoy (NYT) to visit the five detainees.

Backgrounder: Iran’s Multifaceted Foreign Policy | Timeline of U.S.-Iran Contacts

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