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Captive Sailors Latest Chapter In Tormented British-Iran Ties

"British power in Iran was never as extensive as Iranians fear, or British hubris tended to project," Ali Ansari, an Iran specialist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, wrote in a column in The Independent on Sunday. "The truth was that British priorities lay elsewhere, in India and now in Iraq.... Other priorities often meant that Iran was neglected," he wrote. But many Iranians do not see this.
by Cyril Belaud
London (AFP) April 03, 2007
The standoff over 15 British sailors held by Iran is only the latest episode in London's troubled history with Tehran, which still suspects the former colonial power of meddling in its affairs.

Trapped in the "Great Game" colonial rivalry between Russia and Britain in the 1800s, Iran has long suspected London of a hidden hand in events affecting the Persian Gulf country.

Such animosity toward Britain has deep roots in Iran.

"British interference in Iranian politics has been the main characteristic of their relationship since actually the 19th century," said Laleh Khalili, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"The Iranians have always looked at the British as a kind of cunning, malign force in their history," she told AFP.

With Persia -- as Iran was called until 1935 -- serving as a buffer with India, the jewel in the British colonial crown, Britain gained a reputation for its skills at manipulation in contrast with Russia's brute force.

Britain never colonised Iran, but occupied the south of the country in 1942 after ousting Reza Shah Pahlavi for his pro-Nazi sympathies and exerted its influence through the "exploitation of Iran's natural resources," Khalili said.

The Anglo-Iranian oil company, forerunner to British Petroleum, "at one point paid more in taxes to the British than it did in fees to Iranians, even as they were exploiting their oil," Khalili said.

The most flagrant Western interference occurred in 1953 when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out a coup backed by Britain's Winston Churchill that toppled nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh who had nationalised the company two years earlier.

The growing US presence increasingly hid British influence, but Iranians have remained suspicious of London.

In 1979 Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- whose father had been ousted in 1942 -- suspected the British of being the force behind the Islamic fundamentalist revolution which brought to power Ayatollah Khomeini.

And many other Iranian opposition members still believe that Britain is favorable to the mullahs.

"British power in Iran was never as extensive as Iranians fear, or British hubris tended to project," Ali Ansari, an Iran specialist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, wrote in a column in The Independent on Sunday.

"The truth was that British priorities lay elsewhere, in India and now in Iraq.... Other priorities often meant that Iran was neglected," he wrote.

But many Iranians do not see this.

Ansari said that "the soldiers of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the driving force in the current crisis, are raised on a steady doctrine of Anglophobia...," adding that many believe "Bush is very much Blair's poodle -- and that the real target of Iranian ire should have been, and should be, Britain and not the US," he said.

In Britain, the media often see it the other way around, criticising Prime Minister Tony Blair for being US President George W. Bush's "poodle".

Recent decades have been marked by various diplomatic incidents with Iran, including the closure of the British mission in Tehran in 1980 after British special forces stormed the Iranian embassy in London to end a hostage siege.

The fatwa issued by Khomeini in 1989 against British writer Salman Rushdie sparked a new rupture in diplomatic relations that were only restored in 1999.

In 2004, Iran captured and held eight British soldiers for three days.

"Since the revolution, although there has been some very deep dark moments between them, diplomacy has been primarily the way in which the two states have dealt with one another," Khalili told AFP.

Since then the relationship has not been "incredibly warm, but it has been very diplomatically cordial," she said.

However, tension still flows from Britain's role in the Western bid to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions, Iran's suspected involvement in British-occupied southern Iraq, and an alleged British plot in oil-rich Khuzestan province.

earlier related report
Britain cautious over 'swift resolution' in stand-off with Iran
London (AFP) April 3 - British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett Tuesday cautioned against hope of a "swift resolution" to the stand-off with Iran over 15 captive sailors, though Tehran hinted at moves to help end the crisis.

"I would urge you to be cautious in assuming that we are likely to see a swift resolution to this issue," Beckett told reporters.

She also played down the possibility of military action: "We are not seeking confrontation. We are seeking to pursue this through diplomatic channels."

Earlier Tuesday Prime Minister Tony Blair had said the stand-off faced a "critical" 48 hours, warning that he may be forced to take "tougher decisions" if the naval personnel are not freed.

Blair told Glasgow-based Real Radio that a diplomatic solution, favoured by top Iranian national security official Ali Larijani, "seems to offer some prospect but the most important thing is to get these people back."

In Tehran, senior officials appeared to be taking a more conciliatory tone over the 14 men and one woman who were seized in the northern Gulf on March 23, accused of trespassing in Iranian waters. Britain insists they were in Iraqi waters.

"London has changed its attitude for several days now and is acting on the basis of negotiations," Vice President Parviz Davoudi said in the southern city of Bushehr where he was opening a new installation at Iran's first nuclear power station.

But he warned: "London must give guarantees and say that there was a violation and there will be no other errors in the future. I think that the problem is heading in this direction and God willing will be resolved soon."

Blair cautioned that London was ready to keep the pressure on Tehran if the eight sailors and seven marines are not released.

He said the situation could evolve through "peaceful, calm negotiation," or London could otherwise take "increasingly tougher decisions."

Blair did not repeat the comments later in the day, preferring to say there were no new developments while adding that the next few days would be "vital."

The Roman Catholic bishop of Britain's armed forces issued a plea from "one religious leader to another", calling on Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to help free the 15.

Khamanei "has the unique opportunity to gain the world's respect for its (Iran's) Islamic laws and values," Bishop Tom Burns said in a statement.

New still images were released on Tuesday of the detained sailors and marines, showing them "relaxing" in tracksuits and playing chess, a change from the previous string of video "confessions."

"It looks like these sailors are happy with spending time in good conditions under the Iranians' Islamic kindness instead of operating in the hard conditions of the Persian Gulf," the semi-official Fars news agency said.

But the mother of Royal Navy Lieutenant Felix Carman, 26, one of the captives, told of her distress at seeing him featured in one of the video "confessions."

"It was a shock to see him on television but we were glad to see he looked fit and well," she told the South Wales Evening Post regional newspaper.

Iran's Larijani earlier said new talks had begun with Britain on resolving the crisis.

"It is at the beginning of the path. If they continue on this path then logically conditions can change and we can go towards ending this issue," he told state television's central news agency.

In Washington, US President George W. Bush insisted there should be no "quid pro quos" with Iran, when asked if five Iranians held since January by US forces in Iraq on suspicion of aiding insurgents should be freed to favour a possible release of the Britons.

But Iraq reiterated that it was negotiating with the US embassy and the US military to secure the Iranians' release.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told AFP: "We have been asking actually the Americans formally to release them for quite some time but still they have not been released."

Britain, which unlike its ally the United States has diplomatic relations with Iran, has kept up bilateral contacts throughout the crisis and ambassador Geoffrey Adams was to meet foreign ministry officials later Tuesday.

The crisis has come at a perilous time for Iran's relations with the West, with the United States refusing to rule out military action over the Iranian nuclear programme and the United Nations imposing tough new sanctions.

Blair said the ball was now in Iran's court.

"I'm not going to say any more at the moment -- it's for the Iranian government now to come back with their response," he said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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US Navy Steps Up Vigilance After Britain-Iran Standoff
Washington (AFP) April 03, 2007
The US Navy said Tuesday it had stepped up vigilance following Iran's recent seizure of 15 British marines and sailors for allegedly entering Iranian waters.

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