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Britain Hails Iranian Release of British Sailors

April 4, 2007 at 5:15 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Like much that goes on in Iran’s ruling circles, the decision to release the British sailors and marines came as a surprise and something of a mystery. To help decode what happened and why, we turn to: Trita Parsi, a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of “Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States.” He’s a citizen of both Iran and Sweden.

And William Samii, a regional analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded non-profit research and development organization. He’s a U.S. citizen but spent part of his childhood in Iran.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, Bill Samii, what’s behind this? Why the turnaround on the part of the Iranian government?

WILLIAM SAMII, Center for Naval Analyses: Well, I think the turnaround, you can almost see the stages that took place, when initially you had military officials coming out with very strident statements about what happened. You had a disparity of diplomats around the world, Iranian diplomats, saying that a trial might take place soon.

And then, over the weekend, you saw the Supreme National Security Council take the lead on the issue, which suggests to me that the Iranian government recognized that perhaps this issue is in danger of escalating into something unmanageable. “We need to get control of it and tone down the rhetoric and move on.”

MARGARET WARNER: Is that how you see it, Trita Parsi? And who do you think made the decision?

TRITA PARSI, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: I think there’s a lot of truth there, but I also think there’s another side of the picture, in the sense that initially the British government pursued quiet diplomacy, and then suddenly it started making rather strong statements publicly, increased the pressure, went to the Security Council, but then didn’t manage to get what it wanted from the Security Council or from Europe.

And that, I think, caused this issue to become much more complicated, because the Iranians are very, very eager to make sure that the outside world understands that they do not respond to pressure.

Then the British changed their tone, and that’s when you also see how Dr. Larijani started to send out a different message. And at this point, I think I would agree with Bill, in a sense that both sides kind of figured out that they basically got whatever they could get out of this. If this went on much longer, it would only be a game of seeing who can lose the most.

Moral victory for Iran

Trita Parsi
Mideast Analyst
There's two ways to deal with Iran. One is through pressure, and one is through diplomacy. The first one doesn't work; the second one did work this time.

MARGARET WARNER: So what did Iran get out of this?

WILLIAM SAMII: I think for the Iranian officials, the establishment, they managed to establish that they were in the right. It wasn't a matter of just one or two Britons acknowledging they'd done something wrong. They had 15 people confessing to being in the wrong place. And I think that was an important moral victory for the Iranian government.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet the British government never said that.

WILLIAM SAMII: That's correct, although Tehran has claimed that it has a letter from London acknowledging they were in waters that they shouldn't have been. Now, if this letter actually surfaces is another matter.

There's also the issue of an Iranian diplomat who had disappeared in Iraq several months ago. Suddenly, yesterday he resurfaced. He was back in Tehran today. And, allegedly, talks were taking place, and Iranian government is being given access to some of its officials who were detained back in Irbil back in January.

MARGARET WARNER: So whose hand do you -- one, do you agree that Iran got something out of this?

TRITA PARSI: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: And whose hand do you see in that?

TRITA PARSI: I think, beyond what they got out of what Bill said, they also got out that the Brits eventually came and negotiated with Iran using a completely different language and turning the issue into a bilateral issue, rather than relying on the pressure that the Security Council potentially could put on Iran.

And that, I think, is the key signal that the Iranians wants to send out. There's two ways to deal with Iran. One is through pressure, and one is through diplomacy. The first one doesn't work; the second one did work this time.

A strained relationship

William Samii
Center for Naval Analyses
History in general is very important for the Iranian people. And the value of the way things played out now is that they showed themselves as unafraid, willing to defy a major power, stand up to it, stand up for what it perceives as its rights.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how do you think the way London handled this played into the resolution? You both said, in a way, that they sort of blew hot and then cooler and they started negotiating. But put it in context of this long and rather tortured relationship between Iran and Great Britain.

TRITA PARSI: I think precisely because of the fact that the Iranians have had a very strenuous relation with the Brits for quite some time, stretching back more than 100 years, in which at times the British were trying to colonize Iran. Later on, they wanted to use it as a buffer against Russia, in order to protect the crown jewel in the empire, India.

All of these things have added to a psyche that the Iranians feel insulted by the Brits. So to get this respect and get Tony Blair to say they respect Iranian civilization, et cetera, that actually is quite valuable to this government in Iran. They want to make sure that they get that and they can show their own people that that is the type of respect they're getting on the international scene. And when they do, they also reciprocate.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that London was aware of this? How do you think London played? And how important do you think this history is in the whole matter?

WILLIAM SAMII: I agree with Trita on this. The history is very important for Iran. History in general is very important for the Iranian people. And the value of the way things played out now is that they showed themselves as unafraid, willing to defy a major power, stand up to it, stand up for what it perceives as its rights. And I think that's the really significant part.

Criticism for Iran's president

Trita Parsi
Mideast Analyst
I think clearly this is going to send a signal in which both sides are going to be a little bit more angry at each other than before. I think the Europeans have lost a lot of faith in the Iranians over this issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet both of you seem to be saying that Iran didn't cave here, yet I was reading an article from the Iranian Student News Agency today. And the sentence was, when asked why he had had this sudden turnaround -- I mean it wasn't seen as -- it didn't sound as if it was seen as a complete victory back in Iran.

WILLIAM SAMII: Looking in terms of the domestic politics, which can be very factionalized, I was looking at the newspapers that came out this morning.

And the supreme leader's representative, one of his newspapers was very critical of the British and very accusatory, but one of the more reform and centrist newspapers were being very critical of the executive branch, saying that they were escalating things for no good reason.

And this is sort of typical of the country's politics, in which, whatever happens, another side will be critical.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, both sides or all parties here said, Trita Parsi, this had nothing to do with the nuclear standoff. But, of course, that is the context in which this all unfolded. What impact do you think this is going to have on the confrontation that is now fairly much ongoing between the West and Iran over its nuclear program?

TRITA PARSI: In the short run, I think clearly this is going to send a signal in which both sides are going to be a little bit more angry at each other than before. I think the Europeans have lost a lot of faith in the Iranians over this issue.

But then the question is, what is the conclusion going to be in the long run? If people look at this incident and say, "Well, here diplomacy actually worked. They got the sailors out. They seem to have been unharmed," whereas in the nuclear file, most of the approach has been based on pressure, sanctions and the threat of military force. And it really has gotten the international community nowhere.

So the long-term conclusion may be that there needs to be a little bit more diplomacy in order to make sure that these other big issues get resolved.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think it will...

WILLIAM SAMII: I think one of the factor is, is that President Ahmadinejad has been criticized for basically the year-and-a-half he's been in office for sort of blundering international tactics, who managed to alienate the international community.

In the last few months, there have been many calls from within the Iranian political establishment calling for the international negotiations to be put in the hands of elder statesmen, and they've been, again, critical of the president.

And this incident, I think, plays into that, that they managed to only upset, as Trita was saying, they sort of alienated their European supporters. And I think this will play into the hands of the Iranian president's domestic opponents.

Playing to his people

William Samii
Center for Naval Analyses
I think he was playing very much to his domestic constituency. The first thing he did in his two-hour press conference when he announced this, the first thing he did was give medals and decorations to the guards who seized them.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, a quick bit of psychoanalysis, just a few seconds. What did you make of the sort of stagecraft of this? Ahmadinejad doing it at a press conference, talking about the "generous gift" to the British people, and then having that rather elaborate farewell staged ceremony with all the sailors?

WILLIAM SAMII: I think he was playing very much to his domestic constituency. The first thing he did in his two-hour press conference when he announced this, the first thing he did was give medals and decorations to the guards who seized them. So that's how he's playing it; it's a domestic issue for him now.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you interpret it?

TRITA PARSI: I would agree, but I would also say that I think he does eye the international community and that audience, as well, in which he's showing himself to have more than just the angry face that is talking about issues that tend to make everyone else, particularly in the West, quite angry.

MARGARET WARNER: Trita Parsi, Bill Samii, thank you.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much.

WILLIAM SAMII: Thank you.