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Monday, April 16, 2007

Iran politics: Ahmadinejad's show


The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has enjoyed one of his finer moments of populist political theatre in announcing the release of the 15 British sailors and marines captured by Iranian naval forces on March 23rd. By taking charge of the issue, which had hitherto been handled with little evident authority by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Ahmadinejad has given the impression of mastery over key political decisions in Iran. However, the abrupt resolution of the affair could also signify that the radical wing of the Iranian regime, of which Mr Ahmadinejad is the figurehead, had been placed under pressure from other power centres anxious at the implications of a prolonged stand-off.

Softly softly

The original incident is likely to have been planned by Iran, or elements within the regime, with a number of objectives in mind. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which forms an important part of Mr Ahmadinejad's power base and whose naval units were involved in the capture of the British personnel, had good reason to take action of this kind as a means to bring pressure on the US for the release of five of its officers who were arrested in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Erbil in January. It has been suggested that the US operation may have been aimed at capturing two senior IRGC figures who had been in the area at the time. Other factors may have included the passage of fresh UN sanctions on Iran in light of its nuclear programme, with Iran intent on showing that it would not be passive in the face of this growing pressure on it to trim its nuclear policy. The incident could also be construed as an attempt by Mr Ahmadinejad to hit back at critics of his confrontational approach in both foreign and domestic policy.

The UK's initial reaction to the crisis was to assert in forceful terms that the Iranian action was illegitimate, as the interception took place in Iraqi waters, and to secure international support through the UN and the EU. Thereafter, the UK took a more subtle approach, perhaps heeding counsel from within Iran and, reportedly, from Syria that confrontation would merely play into the hands of Mr Ahmadinejad. While rejecting any notion of an apology, let alone a deal, the UK expressed "regret" that the incident had occurred. This left open the interpretation that it could have been the result of a misunderstanding. Iranian honour was also partially assuaged by the release of one of its diplomats, who had been abducted by Iraqis in Baghdad, and the Iraqi government said that it had asked the US to allow Iranian consular access to the five suspected IRGC officers arrested in Erbil.

Mr Ahmadinejad said that Iran had decided to release the British sailors and marines as a seasonal goodwill gesture, marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed and the impending arrival of Easter. On the occasion of his speech he also pinned medals on commanders of the IRGC coastguard, commending them for their valour in confronting the alleged UK incursion.

The decision to bring the affair to a rapid close could also have been influenced by concern that the deliberate, and illegitimate, nature of the original operation could have been exposed if proposals to set up an independent international commission of inquiry to adjudicate between the British and Iranian claims had been put into practice.

Mr Ahmadinejad has once more shown his flair for the occasion, but it is by no means clear that he has advanced his cause within the Iranian political system. Iran's professional diplomats, by contrast, have offered a hint of flexibility in their dealings with the crisis, which could yet prove to be significant as the wider disputes over the nuclear programme and Iran's regional role develop.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
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