- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

TEHRAN - The swirling intrigue and speculation about the motives behind Iran’s seizure of 15 British sailors and marines intruded only briefly on a weekend gathering of middle-aged leftist writers and artists in a comfortable apartment on the slopes of the al-Borz mountain chain that separates Tehran from the Caspian Sea.

“The regime knows that the greatest uniting factor for the people is their dislike of England and its meddling in our history,” said Mahmoud, a sculptor and former communist who spent five years in an Iranian prison in the 1980s.

“But the British are even smarter and think one step ahead of the Iranians, so its quite likely that they prompted this crisis themselves in order to bring pressure to bear on the Islamic republic,” speculated Mahmoud, who asked that his last name not be used.

The conversation held in a tastefully decorated house with objets dart in illuminated display cases, a parquet floor, 1960s polished wooden furniture and bookshelves laden with anthologies of Persian literature was typical of the bemused indifference with which most Iranians are regarding the mounting crisis.

Talk of the British navy personnel infringed only momentarily upon the evenings conversation, which was dominated by a discussion on the respective capacity of painters and authors to revise their works.

Having seen the 1979 revolution slip out of their hands as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini mobilized Irans extensive mosque network to establish an Islamic republic, todays Iranian leftists are simply unwilling to become involved again in politics.

“People remember the experience of the U.S. hostage siege and how it became a game of the system against the West,” Mahmoud said. “So this time they remain outside the media furor and unmobilized. Once bitten, twice shy.”

The sculptor did allow himself to recall his days in prison and to speculate on how the authorities may have prompted several of the British soldiers to admit to having been captured in Iranian waters something their government adamantly denies.

“This government is expert at psychological pressure,” he said, noting the detainees’ tendency to regularly look off camera during their taped confessions for possible prompts from their captors.

Recalling a process of deliberate disorientation to which he had been subjected, he said the authorities “may have put in isolation for two days before their first confession and told them that if you dont apologize, Britain and Iran may go to war.”

Roads leading to Tehran were jammed yesterday with hundreds of thousands of cars streaming back to the capital at the end of the Persian New Year holiday, when millions of people indulge in two weeks of relaxation and travel. Ministries have been open again for almost a week and most newspapers are about to restart publishing after a two-week pause.

On Irans popular Radio Payam, the reports that received the biggest audience were not on the detainee crisis but about traffic jams across Tehran.

However, there are signs of a lively debate going on within the government over the detainee issue, with the loudest voices insisting that the seamen be processed through Irans judicial system.

The avidly read Farsi-language Baztab news Web site, which is owned by a former leader of the Revolutionary Guards, suggested in an article on Sunday that “Iran is not in need of an apology” and urged the government to put the detainees on trial.

Another article noted that a German national caught trespassing in Iranian national waters about a year and a half ago was immediately put on trial and sentenced. “Is the British sailors blood more valuable than the German fishermans?” the article asked.

Many Iranians remain suspicious of Britain because of a colonial involvement in their country beginning in the 19th century and its role in planning a U.S.-executed 1953 coup that removed liberal nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

“Putting the aggressors on trial and observing the law is in Irans interest,” said Hamidreza Hajibabayee, a hard-line member of the parliament. “Britains decision to freeze the relations is in fact good for Iran because we have seen nothing but harm in our relations with Britain.”

Associated Press photographs

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