Tensions Between Iran, Britain Mount

The crisis over Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and Marines seems to be going from bad to worse. A new confrontation between Britain and Iran occurred in the Iraqi city of Basra on Thursday morning when a group of British soldiers headed out on a routine patrol came under attack from "several bursts of small arms fire," according to Capt. Gary Hedges, a British military spokesman in Basra. The Brits discovered the shots were coming from a dilapidated building near the Iranian consulate, which is close to the base. After a 15-minute gunfight, the soldiers left, and no casualties occurred. But an Iranian official at the consulate, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the crisis, told NEWSWEEK that the British patrol surrounded the consulate and began shooting. "They shot right at the consulate," says the official. "The bullet holes are still here."

The Iranian official also contended that the British have tried to search the consulate four times in the past month. "Since our consulate is close to their base, they suspect that we are shooting mortars at them," says the official. "Who shoots mortars from a consulate?" After the incident, Iran's foreign ministry in Tehran summoned British Ambassador Geoffrey Adams and handed him a formal complaint about the alleged siege of the Basra consulate. Hedges responds: "We absolutely did not fire on the Iranian consulate."

U.S. intelligence and national-security officials say they have disturbingly little hard intelligence about the motives and actors behind the March 23 seizure of 15 British sailors and Marines who were inspecting an Indian-flagged merchant ship in the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. What is clear is that an incident that both U.S. and British officials predicted would be quickly resolved has dragged on longer than expected—and there is no resolution in sight. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has appealed to the U.N. Security Council for help while he finds himself under intense pressure at home to react more aggressively to the crisis. Tehran, meanwhile, is angrily rejecting the legitimacy of the U.N. process after two Security Council resolutions sanctioning it over its nuclear program. And now it has begun parading the captives before TV cameras and coercing abject apologies from them.

Some American officials like Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA Mideast expert who retired from the U.S. government last year, have even begun making comparisons to the 1979-81 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranians, says Riedel, who now works at the Saban Center, a Washington think tank, are "prepared to play hardball in places where we're vulnerable, particularly in Iraq." He notes that the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was active in the student movement that took U.S. diplomats hostage a generation ago, and that this movement ultimately transformed itself into the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—allegedly the culprits behind the seizure of the British sailors and Marines. Ahmadinejad spent most of his career in IRGC, one of the Iranian theocracy's principal security forces, before going into politics.

Last week's seizure came at the tail end of a dramatic series of moves, which has left Iran feeling isolated and deprived of resources, as well as threatened in the Persian Gulf by a major U.S. show of force. And the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been singled out in particular as a target of new U.N. sanctions authorized March 23, the same day the seizure occurred. In recent weeks a former Revolutionary Guard general, Alireza Asgari, disappeared in Turkey, possibly as a defection; around the same time, an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad was reportedly seized by an Iraqi special forces unit that collaborates closely with U.S. forces. American troops in Iraq also arrested Qais al-Khazali, an alleged liaison between IRGC operatives and "secret cells"—or terrorist elements—of the Shia Mahdi Army led by the militant Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The seizure could even represent an effort by IRGC zealots to prevent the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from cutting a deal with the West, some foreign diplomats and Iranian experts have suggested.

Some Iranian officials say even they are not sure who's in control in Tehran right now—and who gave the order, if any was given. "Lack of central command and the existence of fighting factions within the Islamic Republic [of Iran] is the scourge of our system," says a retired senior Iranian diplomat who did not want to be named commenting on such sensitive matters. "It usually happens like this: one small group does something, and then it's the whole system that has to clean up after them. From what I know, the British forces kept on coming very close to the Iranian territory in the past few months. As you can imagine with all the saber rattling in the U.S. and the U.K. against Iran, and the British and American governments accusing Iran of meddling in Iraq's internal affairs, the Islamic Republic as a whole is very sensitive to any act that may infringe its territorial integrity. So the Navy and Revolutionary Guard navy patrols have been on high alert for the past few months."

The former Iranian diplomat adds that the Revolutionary Guard commanders "have a very narrow and xenophobic view of the world in general and the West in particular. They were mostly in their teens and 20s when they joined the Guards during the Iran-Iraq War. They spent most of their time in the fronts fighting an enemy [Saddam Hussein's Iraq] that was helped by the American and the British. So their worldview was shaped by deep skepticism about the West and intentions about Iran." The only way out now, he suggests, is for the British and Americans to make the first gesture of conciliation. "I know for sure that some of the commanders of the Guards do not agree with the action taken by the Iranian troops in the south," he says, "but they can't just come and say, 'We're sorry for what happened and we'd release these people immediately.' They need guarantees that Iran's territorial integrity won't be endangered by the British and American forces."

Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, predicts a longer standoff than the last such hostage-taking in 2004, when British sailors were also captured by the Iranians, paraded before TV cameras and then released within three days. "The difference with the last time is we have a different government in power in Iran today; it's much more hard line, it's much more willing to believe in British duplicity," he told the BBC. "On the other hand, since 2004 there has been a development of a cadre of Persian specialists in the [British] Foreign Office and other places … There is room for diplomacy and networking and connections to work. So in that sense I think the lesson from 2004 is to give that diplomatic process a chance."

But for now, it's not working. The 1979 hostage crisis went on for 444 days. It's an open question how long this one will last.