Might Iran deal on nukes, too?
Tehran showed some geopolitical skill in the manner in which it conducted itself during the prisoner crisis, say experts.
Iran's release of its British prisoners is welcome news – but it probably does not mean that Tehran now will be more flexible in its ongoing standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
If anything, Iran showed some geopolitical skill in the manner in which it conducted itself during the prisoner crisis, say experts. Iranian leaders perhaps held the 15 sailors and marines just long enough to appear tough to their domestic audience. Then they suddenly handed them back, before the impasse escalated into a full-out international crisis.
"The lesson to me is that the Iranians are pretty good at calculating leverage," says George Perkovich, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The 15 British military personnel arrived home on April 5 following an early morning departure from Tehran aboard a British Airways flight.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed "profound relief" over the end of the 13-day crisis. In a statement directed at the Iranian people, Blair said "we bear you no ill will."
Iran did not get a public apology from the British for entering Iranian waters. Britain insisted their sailors had been outside Iran's sea line of control.
It was not immediately apparent whether Britain or its US ally had made any concessions to Tehran as part of a release deal. US officials said they were considering a request from Iran's government to send an emissary to meet with five Iranians that have been imprisoned in Iraq since they were seized in a US-led raid in January.
Given the disputes it has with the US and other nations over the crucial issue of its nuclear program, Iran probably did not want the prisoner situation to escalate too much, say some US-based experts.
The British Navy personnel could well have been seized based on a quick decision by a Revolutionary Guard commander in the field. Officials in Tehran perhaps then had to decide how they would exploit, or defuse, the situation.
Hard-liners in Iran pushed for a show trial of their prisoners. But more moderate leaders – or, at least, less extreme ones – appear to have prevailed.
With the prisoners' release, "we saw another indication that this is not a reckless and irrational government," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Alterman and other experts say it's unlikely the prisoner crisis had anything to do with the problems of Iran's nuclear program, from Tehran's point of view. Given that Iran has scaled back its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and continued to insist that within IAEA rules it has the right to enrich uranium, the last thing Tehran needed was further indication that it is becoming a rogue regime.
Even so, the 13-day crisis had its bumpy moments, from Iran's insistence that the British were within Iranian waters, to the display of the prisoners on television uttering "confessions" that were perhaps coerced.
"It's just a reminder of how hard it is to negotiate with the Iranians," says Alterman of CSIS.
Diplomacy worked in this case, note US experts. But Iran faced a relatively united opposition, from the UN Security Council to the European Union. In the case of Iran's nascent nuclear work, it is not clear opponents are so cohesive.
And while patient engagement may well be the best way to deal with Iran, its nuclear program could be very difficult to stop if it's something that Iranian leaders view as being a preeminent national interest.
George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment says that Iran is like other countries that have progressed relatively far down the nuclear road. It is not clear yet whether Iran's leaders have decided that they want nuclear weapons. In fact, they probably have not yet reached the point where that decision must be made.
"But they want the capability to make that decision at some point. They've decided they'd like the option," says Perkovich.
In addition, Iran's leaders appear to truly believe that what they are doing is within the parameters of the world's nonproliferation regime. Developing the capacity to enrich uranium is a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, they say.
But that's so only if the country in question doesn't violate other IAEA strictures, notes Perkovich. And Iran has indeed committed violations, he says, through such actions as concealing aspects of its enrichment program.
Iran's nuclear efforts appear to have widespread domestic support. The country has even issued currency featuring nuclear symbols.
Meanwhile, the turmoil in Iraq has weakened the US hand, even as Washington tries to increase pressure on Tehran through such actions as the seizure of Iranians on Iraqi territory, according to Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
A multilateral strategy that presses Iran economically, and tries to isolate it diplomatically might work, said Mr. Byman in testimony delivered to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 15.
But it also might not convince Iran to deal away its nuclear ambitions.
"Washington also must prepare for the possibility that its best efforts will not sway Iranian leaders," Byman told lawmakers.