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Infighting muddies the waters as Iran captive crisis goes on

March 31, 2007|Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim | Special to The Times

TEHRAN — A fractured Iranian leadership sent mixed signals Friday over the capture of 15 British marines and sailors, further clouding its intentions in the crisis.

Iran ignored protests by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and released another videotaped confession of a detainee, as well as a letter criticizing British foreign policy purportedly written by the lone female captive, Faye Turney.

At the same time, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in the security forces pressed for the release of Turney.

A flurry of diplomatic efforts by British, Iranian, Japanese, Australian, Turkish and Iraqi officials failed to resolve the standoff, which took on shades of similar crises involving Iran, such as the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the 1989 fatwa, or ruling, issued against Salman Rushdie in response to the British author's novel "The Satanic Verses."

In both cases, a weak Tehran government, riven by factional infighting, sought to stifle opposition and rally support by fomenting an international crisis. The price in each case was high. The hostage-taking was the start of 28 years of friction between Tehran and Washington. The Islamic decree that Rushdie be killed meant diplomatic ties between London and Tehran suffered for nearly a decade.

This time the factional squabbling arose over the issue of releasing Turney. Iranian Foreign Ministry officials had initially said they would release her soon as a gesture of goodwill, but they later reneged, saying they disliked the tone of Britain's protests.

The Revolutionary Guard, the group presumably holding the Britons, has made a point of broadcasting videotapes of the detainees despite London's demands that it treat them in accord with international standards.

Foreign Ministry officials, some loosely allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have demanded that Britain apologize before Iran will consider granting consular access to the detainees or releasing them from custody.

Reformists and opposition figures in Iran have begun to criticize the government's actions as counterproductive and harmful to the country's image and long-term goals.

Small ultraconservative groups, especially those rooted in honoring the legacy of soldiers killed in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, have been calling for immediate trial of the detainees on charges of violating Iran's territorial waters, or for using the Britons as leverage to obtain the freedom of the handful of Iranian officials held by U.S. forces in Iraq.

"The capture of the Britons and the ensuing crisis provide the favorable conditions for the militarism-minded individuals in power," said Saeed Madani, a leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran, an outlawed but tolerated opposition group.

"To this end, militarists will try their best to avoid any resolution of the crisis in the short term," he said.

Friday prayer leaders throughout the country echoed the demands of some of those calling for a trial.

"We are looking neither for a conflict nor tension in the region," prayer leader Ahmad Khatami told worshipers in Tehran. "But we will not allow any country to violate our territory, and especially not Britain, which has no positive record in Iranian history."

But the Khamenei spokesman, mid-ranking cleric Mohammad Ali Rahmani, called for the release of Turney.

"In order to show Iran's special respect for women to the world and the implementation of Iran's policy of detente, and in view of her admission, it would be better to release the female sailor," Rahmani told the state-run Mehr news agency.

British officials insist that the 15 personnel, who were taken prisoner March 23, were on a routine inspection mission in the territorial waters of Iraq, where the American and British military help the Baghdad government under United Nations mandate.

Britain has demanded that the captives be released immediately, and on Thursday it obtained a U.N. Security Council statement calling for an end to the crisis.

Iran alleges that the 14 men and one woman illegally entered Iranian waters. Both sides have released maps and GPS coordinates that they say bolster their cases.

Political analysts say the seizure may have been an attempt to forestall internal criticism of Iran's uncompromising stance on its uranium enrichment program, which drew new sanctions from the Security Council on March 24.

Ahmadinejad and conservative elements in the security forces had apparently miscalculated the extent of international unity on the nuclear issue.

"There are different views [in Iran] on how the relationship with the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency should be played out," said Charles Dunbar, a former U.S. diplomat and Iran expert at Boston University.

"There was some concern about the need to be more forthcoming in the discussions. But the more radical folks needed to have something to create a diversion, which is the point of taking the British sailors," he said.

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