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Iranian prisoner crisis: It's not 1979, but some lessons apply

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But some lessons may have been learned from the 1979-81 crisis. Hodding Carter III, who was US undersecretary of State at the time, said one of the conclusions to be drawn was that "when hostages are taken it's a very good time for governments to shut up."

"You're better off conducting diplomacy behind closed doors," he told BBC radio Monday. "You are far more likely to be able to affect something if you are not out there beating your chest and letting them beat their chest in return."

British diplomats are essentially trying to do just that: working quietly to elaborate a formula that will enable both sides to emerge with no loss of face. Despite shrill calls from Americans such as former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, and from parts of the domestic press to act more robustly against Iran, Britain has by and large pursued a "softly softly" approach. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Tuesday evening that there was a "huge amount" going on behind the scenes.

"What is to be gained from following the Israeli example of last summer [when it invaded Lebanon after its soldier was captured]?" asks Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, a London think tank, "You can't use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They still haven't got their service personnel back, and they smashed up half of Lebanon."

"If the objective is to get the personnel back then one is looking for a formula which both sides can benefit from," she adds.

That was the approach three years ago, when six British sailors and two Royal Marines were seized in a similar part of the northern Gulf. On that occasion, Britain quietly admitted that its personnel may have strayed across the border by mistake.

Matters have not been helped this time around by the Iranian New Year holiday, which has kept key interlocutors away from their desk, and by a related row over five Iranians detained by the US military in northern Iraq in January.

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