Iran May Try Shatt al-Arab 15 as Spies
FIFTEEN British sailors and marines arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards off the coast of Iraq may be charged with spying. A website run by associates of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, reported last night that the Britons would be put before a court and indicted. Referring to them as “insurgents”, the site concluded: “If it is proven that they deliberately entered Iranian territory, they will be charged with espionage. If that is proven, they can expect a very serious penalty since according to Iranian law, espionage is one of the most serious offences.”
The warning followed claims by Iranian officials that the British navy personnel had been taken to Tehran, the capital, to explain their “aggressive action” in entering Iranian waters. British officials insist the servicemen were in Iraqi waters when they were held.
I’m not sure how seriously to take statements made on the website in question, with which I am unfamiliar. Tony Blair is reportedly quite concerned.
After a day of shadow-boxing with a notoriously slippery regime, Tony Blair is set to up the ante: the plight of the Shatt al-Arab 15 is officially a crisis and he will need the Cobra team to handle it. The clutch of VIPs will gather in an operations room several floors below Downing Street as early as this afternoon to plot an escape from a military spat that now threatens to become an international incident.
It was an understated description of the deep concern now gripping the government. Not only was Blair’s administration alarmed at the risk to the 15 military personnel, which included at least one woman, but it was in no doubt over Tehran’s ability to use their plight to make a wider point.
During a flurry of diplomatic activity in the hours after the snatch, the Iranians’ rhetoric repeatedly elevated their action, and the alleged motives of the British, to a multinational affair. It was the eve of a second UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions over Iran’s refusal to halt its programme to enrich uranium. The Shatt al-Arab 15 were, from the start, pawns in a perilous international game. “It looks like too much of a coincidence,” a senior Foreign Office insider confirmed.
The response was a no- nonsense demand for Iran to relent – and Britain freely used the international community to back up its case. Beckett dispatched the UK chargé d’affaires, Kate Smith, to confront the government in Tehran, armed with the insistence that the British sailors had been in Iraqi waters.
It would be harder for Iran to be much more isolated in the international community, as even the Russians have backed away from them in recent months. Still, sending such a strong signal that they are not responsible, rational actors makes no sense to me. Their position should be to try to force the world to take them seriously as a regional power, not to reinforce their status as a rogue state.