Perspectives on the British Detainees
By: Stratfor.comMarch 30, 2007
The British Foreign Office on Wednesday balked at a letter ostensibly written by the only female among the 15 British military personnel being held by Iran. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett called the release of the letter, which clearly had been dictated by the Iranians, "completely unacceptable." London obviously does not appreciate having its citizens being used for propaganda purposes.

It is essential to put the detainee situation into perspective. The deepening standoff over the detainees-like most things Iranian these days-boils down to the status of U.S.-Iranian talks over Iraq. Tehran was feeling pretty confident that it had the United States cornered after the U.S. congressional elections in November, but the tide turned as Washington worked with its allies to level the playing field. The recent assassination of a key Iranian nuclear scientist by Mossad, the defection of a high-ranking former Iranian defense official and the detention of five Iranian citizens-including members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force-by U.S. forces in Arbil have unnerved Iran. And IRGC members and other officials within the government have not attempted to hide their outrage at the top leadership over these incidents.

Moreover, Tehran has watched unhappily as the United States has wrested the nuclear card from its diplomatic hand. The Iranians have been careful to paint their nuclear program as just threatening enough to be useful as leverage in their talks over Iraq, but not threatening enough to spur a devastating strike by the Israelis. By tying the nuclear issue to Iraq, Iran had a relatively solid negotiating tactic with which to challenge Washington. Recently, however, the United States trumped that card-agreeing to hold direct public talks over Iraq while keeping the nuclear issue firmly in the hands of the U.N. Security Council, where Washington persuaded members to pass a new set of sanctions targeting the finances of top IRGC officials. Additionally, the United States pulled Russia into its corner on the U.N. resolution, albeit temporarily-a situation that manifested in a Russo-Iranian spat over the future of the Bushehr reactor.

Since then, Iran has been seeking a new card to play, and the British servicemen and marines were an easy target.

Significantly, in seizing the British personnel, Iran incurred a political risk, not a military one. The Iranians are not looking to hold the detainees long enough to invite military intervention or a search-and-rescue operation on Iranian soil. The seizure was a daring move, but the leadership in Tehran is well aware that provoking an even larger escalation would backfire in the negotiations over Iraq.

The Iranians likely intend to drag this crisis out for as long as they can-using the TV footage of the detainees for domestic purposes and demonstrating to the international community that Iran can play dirty in order to get what it wants out of the negotiations over Iraq and its nuclear program. At the same time, Tehran will be extremely careful to show that the Britons are not in danger and are being treated well-thus steering toward a diplomatic resolution to the situation and leaving itself the option of releasing the detainees without appearing to cave to external pressure.

Meanwhile, the United States and United Kingdom will be posturing to convince the Iranians that this latest ploy in the Gulf was a major miscalculation, and that military action is a real possibility. To get the message across, the USS John C. Stennis and USS Eisenhower launched joint exercises in the Persian Gulf on March 27-the first time multiple U.S. carriers have done so inside the Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although both have been steaming in the North Arabian Sea for more than a month, this is the first coordinated training-something Iran is sure to notice, despite public denials that the exercises are taking place.

And additional assets are not far away. The French carrier Charles de Gaulle is supporting operations in Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea. The USS Reagan is operating in the East China Sea, and the Nimitz, Enterprise and Truman are all maintaining a state of readiness in accordance with the fleet response plan.

Rumors also are flying within intelligence circles about a coordinated search-and-rescue operation by British and U.S. Special Forces to extract the detainees from Iran. Rescue operations are being planned in case the tactical situation changes, but the likelihood of a go order being given is another story. Such an operation would be extremely difficult to pull off, and would be preceded by a series of conciliatory moves by London and Washington designed to lower Iran's alert status. In addition to the challenge of locating the detainees-who likely are hidden deep inside the country, possibly have been separated and certainly are surrounded by military personnel-the U.S. and British governments must factor in the possibility that Western expatriates and diplomats in Iran could be taken hostage in retaliation for any military rescue maneuver. The risks are simply too high to pursue such an operation, particularly since the Iranians are showing every intention of releasing the detainees after negotiations, and making it clear that the Britons are not in harm's way.

That said, the United Kingdom, United States and Israel all have an interest in leaking plans concerning an imminent rescue mission in order to get the Iranians to blink first. Moreover, increased intelligence-gathering and the positioning of British Special Air Service teams and their support elements in the region will, in and of themselves, add to Iranian angst.

Despite all the military posturing, the United States is just as unwilling as Iran to enter into a direct military confrontation with so much at stake in Iraq. The primary aim of these military maneuvers is to psychologically wear down the Iranians and get the clerical regime to curb its appetite for adventure if it wants a deal on Iraq. The question that remains, then, is: How well are the Iranians reading U.S. intentions? Only the timed release of the detainees will tell.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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