- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

Iran released 15 British sailors and marines this week only after having made the point that it can cause mischief any time it feels its vital interests are threatened, regional analysts said yesterday.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “Easter present” release of the British captives ended a 13-day drama that played out according to a script largely written in Tehran.

“Unfortunately, Iran has emerged from this in a win-win situation,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton, who has favored a tough line on Tehran over its nuclear programs and its challenge to U.S. interests in Iraq and across the Middle East.

After Britain showed it would pursue quiet diplomacy instead of a more forceful response, “Iran didn’t gain any more by prolonging the crisis beyond 13 days,” Mr. Bolton said.

Iran’s official line is that the British sailors and marines were seized for violating Iran’s territorial waters, but some lawmakers in Tehran said the government was intent on making a larger point.

Amir Hassankhani, a conservative member of the Iranian parliament, told the Fars News Agency that the crisis showed Iran was a power whose interests could not be ignored.

“The arrest and release of the British sailors proved that if Iran’s issues and demands are overlooked at the international level, the Islamic republic can create different challenges for the other side,” Mr. Hassankhani said.

Bill Samii, an Iranian foreign policy analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank linked to the U.S. Navy, said Iran and Mr. Ahmadinejad likely would enjoy only a “short-term victory” from the ending of the crisis, while reinforcing fears in the region over Iran’s longer-term intentions.

“Ahmadinejad gets a political boost, at least domestically, but I think the Iranian leadership decided they had gotten the maximum mileage they were going to get from the situation, and decided to shut things down,” Mr. Samii said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack argued that the crisis only reinforced U.S. arguments about the unreliability and lawlessness of Iran’s leadership.

“This is clearly a regime that after several decades continues to view hostage-taking as a tool of its international diplomacy,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters, “There are some, I think, fairly important unknowns about what went on inside Iran during all of this.”

But the Pentagon chief added there was “no inclination” to free five Iranian operatives held by U.S. forces in Iran suspected of subversion and arming insurgents now that the British crisis has ended.

Some analysts argue that the incident is a sign of Iranian weakness. Despite its troubles in Iraq, the United States has beefed up its military presence around Iran, while organizing an international coalition to halt Iran’s suspected drive to obtain nuclear weapons. Sunni Arab regimes in the region talk openly of their fears about the regional ambitions of Shi’ite Iran.

Mr. Samii noted that reformists and centrists inside Iran criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad during the standoff for not taking a tougher line, noting that Britain never issued the apology for “violating” Iran’s waters that the regime originally demanded.

Others say the standoff shows the increasing confidence of Iran’s leadership.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s top national security official and a key negotiator in ending the latest crisis, repeated yesterday that Iran would not stop its uranium-enrichment program, the key sticking point in the international drive to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Said Mr. Bolton, “I think the real consequence is that the regime in Tehran will now be emboldened in its nuclear weapons program and its overall regional efforts to project power through terrorist groups” in the region.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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