Expert Discusses British Sailors' Apparent Cooperation With Iranian AuthoritiesApril 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's state-run media say all 15 British naval personnel being held by Tehran have confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters. Previously, Iranian television showed four of the Britons saying they had entered Iranian territory without permission when they were detained on March 23. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc asked independent military analyst Charles Heyman if military personnel are supposed to follow certain protocols when they are detained by foreign authorities.
RFE/RL: This is the second time in recent years that U.K. personnel have been detained by Iran. Is this case different from the incident in 2004, when eight British servicemen were seized after allegedly straying over the maritime border?
Charles Heyman: No, I don't think it's any different this time. There is a dispute over where the border actually runs. The British say the border runs along one line, the Iranians say the border runs along another line. It's possible that both sides think they are in the right, and both sides firmly believe that what they are saying is correct. I mean, it really does need some international arbitration to actually, at long last, delineate exactly where this border runs.
RFE/RL: What rules must the naval personnel follow in a situation like this?
Heyman: This is a very, very difficult one for these naval personnel. They are not prisoners of war. When you are given resistance-to-interrogation training, it really is [intended] for prisoners of war. These sailors have been taken, basically, in a civil dispute, a case that normally goes before normal courts. They've been arrested, as opposed to having been captured. And one of the problems here is that if you adopt the stance that you normally do when you're a prisoner of war -- number, rank, and name -- in some legal codes, and of course in the Iranian code specifically, the inability of the person who's been detained to explain why they were there and what they were doing is, in fact, an offense in itself -- an admission of guilt. So these people are in a very difficult position. They also haven't got any access to British consulate officials. But they're not prisoners of war. They've just been arrested. So their status is very, very different, and it must be very, very confusing for them.
RFE/RL: Since those captured are military personnel, one would have expected them to talk with more reluctance than what we've seen on television. What kind of training do navy personnel have to help them in the event they are captured?
Heyman: I think that all the training is for capture by an enemy force. None of the training goes into being detained. They're not captured. They're being detained or arrested in a civil dispute. And there's no doubt whatsoever -- nobody can deny this -- that those sailors and marines are being treated humanely and decently by the looks of things, by the Iranians. And that's why they're smiling and they're relaxed. They know that this is a civil case, as opposed to being prisoners of war. It's a very, very difficult area. You know, you can play very easily with the public-relations aspect of it. You can get them in unguarded moments and take images of them when they are smiling. They're not going to be sitting around scowling 24 hours a day. That's not how you keep your morale up.
RFE/RL: What does this do for the image of the British military in general?
Heyman: It has come at a very sensitive moment. I think that most people worldwide understand the realities of a situation like this. These people -- the sailors and the marines -- are in a very difficult position. They weren't really equipped for war fighting. They weren't equipped to properly defend themselves. They only had small arms, while the boats that surrounded them had heavy machine guns and much heavier weapons.
RFE/RL: And on top of everything, Britain is not at war with Iran.
Heyman: Britain's not at war. Who would it have helped if there would have been a gun battle in the straits between the Royal Navy -- basically in a small rubber boat -- and the Iranian Republican Guard? It wouldn't have helped anyone. It would have sparked off something that would have given maybe some very warlike people in the world -- some people who really want to have a war in that area -- an excuse for going to war. So I think that certainly, the fact that those sailors and marines just went quietly with the Iranians was a good thing, at the end of the day. And I think that if we play this one correctly, our people will come back and it will be recognized for what it is -- a relatively minor territorial incident. They go on all the time. If you really wanted to get belligerent, there are enough ships and submarines, cruise missiles, aircraft -- things like that -- in the area to cause significant damage. But nobody wants that.
London, Tehran Clash In War Of Images
Both sides are producing evidence: Britain with satellite maps, Iran with the "confessions" of the sailors themselves.
The dispute over just where the British sailors were at the time of their capture will probably never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction, because they were captured offshore of a region of the Iraqi-Iranian border where the demarcation line itself is subject to much disagreement.
That region is the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, a narrow channel where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers jointly flow into the Persian Gulf. The Shatt Al-Arab -- and the sea boundary offshore -- has long been used as a bargaining chip between Iran and Iraq and even as a cause of war.
In 1980, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein dramatically ripped up on television a 1975 treaty establishing the middle of the river as the frontier. Iraq and Iran then fought an eight-year war that never ended in a peace treaty.
Still, international maritime authorities widely accept the 1975 treaty as still standing and have drawn an imaginary line out to sea from the midpoint of the channel to serve as a sea boundary until the issue is one day decided.
Britain argues that its sailors and marines from the British frigate "HMS Cornwall" were seized well to the west -- that is, the Iraqi side -- of this line.
"My primary message is clear: 'HMS Cornwall' with her boarding party was about her legal business, in Iraqi territorial waters, under a United Nations Security Council resolution and with the explicit approval of the Iraqi government," Royal Navy Vice Admiral Charles Style, deputy chief of the British defense staff, told reporters on March 28 in London.
"The action by Iranian forces in arresting and detaining our people is unjustified and wrong. As such it is a matter of deep concern to us," Style added.
The 15 British naval personnel were seized after they left the "HMS Cornwall" aboard rubber patrol boats to conduct a routine antismuggling check on a commercial freighter. One of the rubber boats had a Global Positioning System (GPS) plotter aboard that communicated the two boats' positions to the "HMS Cornwall" at all times.
But Iran argues that the plotter on the seized boat registered a different location than the one presented by Britain. That has prompted a back-and-forth argument.
When Iran presented the first location it claims the plotter showed, London informed Tehran that this location was also in waters widely accepted to be Iraqi.
Tehran then provided what it called a "corrected" rereading of the rubber boat's location plotter. It then claimed the rubber boat was actually at a second location 1 nautical mile (1.9 kilometers) from the first Iranian-given position and thus clearly in Iranian waters.
As the two countries publicly exchange evidence based on high-tech locators whose functions most people poorly understand, they also are waging a hearts-and-minds battle based on what the sailors themselves say.
Tehran is relying heavily in this propaganda war on what it says are voluntary confessions that the captives trespassed into Iranian territory.
"Yes, I'd like to say to the Iranian people I can understand why you are so angry about our intrusion into your waters," British Lieutenant Felix Carmen said in video aired on April 1 on Iranian state television.
Two other Britons have also appeared on television. In addition to expressing regret for what they say is trespass, they have also praised their captors for treating them well.
"Obviously we trespassed into their waters," Faye Turney, the only woman crew member, said in a video aired on March 28. "They were very friendly, very hospitable, very thoughtful, nice people. They explained to us why we'd been arrested. There was no aggression, no hurt, no harm. They were very, very compassionate."
Style Vs. Substance
All this takes the propaganda war to a level where arguments citing satellite data from the cold world of machines confronts the emotional, human testimony of the captives themselves.
Iran has sought to direct the argument primarily to listeners in the Arab world, particularly in Iraq. It has done so by first airing the British captives' remarks on its Arabic-language foreign broadcasting channels, particularly Al-Alam television.
Britain has countered in this battle of emotions by saying Iran is abusing the captives by parading them on television and forcing them to say untruths.
So far, there is no evidence that the audience will find the human evidence presented by Iran more convincing than the machine evidence presented by Britain. But the confrontation appears to highlight at least some of the cultural differences between the technology-based West and the more traditional East.
War By Proxy?
What remains unclear are the precise motives for Iran's Revolutionary Guards seizing the British personnel when they were on a peaceful assignment. The "HMS Cornwall" is part of a task force that operates under UN Security Council authority to catch smugglers in Iraqi waters.
But the seizure comes at a time of high tension between Iran and the West -- and the UN Security Council -- over Iran's nuclear program. It largely coincided with a Security Council vote to expand sanctions against Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment.
At the same time, Iran is at odds with London and Washington over charges that Iran supplies money and expertise to militants attacking coalition troops in Iraq.
And Iran is angry over the seizure by U.S. forces of five Iranians in northern Iraq in January. Tehran says the five were diplomats but Washington says they were part of a network of Iranian agents helping anticoalition militants.
Whatever the motives for the seizure of the Britons, there are suggestions Iran wants a deal.
Tehran demands a formal apology from London for what it says was trespass into its territory. But U.S. officials have suggested they think larger demands might be in the offing. Washington has already ruled out any exchange of the British naval personnel for the five Iranians taken in Iraq.
The crisis over the British captives has already run longer than a similar showdown in 2004. In June of that year, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway.
They were released unharmed three days later after saying they had entered Iranian waters illegally.
Tehran Outraged By Latest UN Resolution
Iran's cabinet voted the following day to reduce Iranian cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors. Officials in Tehran have denounced the latest resolution as illegal, impractical, and unrepresentative of international opinion.
The latest resolution enhances sanctions imposed on Iran in December (Resolution 1737), after Iran refused to halt atomic fuel-making activities in response to UN demands. It increases the number of Iranian individuals and firms purportedly linked to Iran's nuclear and ballistic programs whose foreign assets are to be frozen. It also imposes a ban on Iranian arms exports and urges states to refrain from extending loans to Iran.
Some Western states suspect Iran could use its developing nuclear know-how in a future bomb-making program. Those are charges that Iran rejects, but Tehran now has two months to comply verifiably with UN demands to halt uranium-enrichment and related activities. If it does not, it could face further sanctions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told the Security Council on March 24 that the resolution was "illegal, useless, and unjustified." He also said the sanctions are "too small" to force Iranians to "relent" in what he called "their rightful and legal demands." He insisted that Tehran "wants neither confrontation nor anything beyond the integrity of its rights." But he added that Western states are misinformed if they think resolutions can weaken Iranian resolve.
Mottaki warned that "the only good [that can come] of this resolution" is persuading "free" countries to distrust "multilateral and international mechanisms" in pursuing their "rights." He reiterated that Iran's program "is entirely peaceful" and said "Iran has stated its readiness to resolve any concerns in this regard."
The Iranian foreign minister also accused the authors of the latest "assault" on Iran of bullying members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- and now of the Security Council -- into repeatedly voting against Iran. He said the resolution does not reflect the views of most UN members.
He insisted that members of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of the Islamic Conference "in their most recent position," in September, "supported Iran's position." Mottaki claimed that the "reality" is that "a few members of the Security Council have, to pursue their political goals, taken the issue out of the [IAEA] as the technical and principal body dealing with this subject, and transferred it to the Security Council." He accused these states forging and fabricating evidence against Iran.
On March 25, Mottaki accused rival governments of "abusing" the Security Council, according to the AP. He said in New York that the 5+1 powers -- Security Council permanent members plus Germany -- imposed preconditions on talks with Iran because there was no "political will" on their part to reach an agreement with Tehran.
Calls For Resumption Of Talks
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on March 25 that the resolution violated the Security Council's duties to safeguard the rights of UN member states in line with Article 25 of the UN Charter. The spokesman said the Security Council has to respect the law and added that the IAEA has not so far accused Iran of deviating from peaceful nuclear activities. He proposed "unconditional" talks "with a precise timetable" to remove any "ambiguity" on Iran's program.
Alaeddin Borujerdi, a legislator and head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, has called the resolution "unacceptable and unfeasible" and "based on America's pressure," Mehr reported on March 25. Borujerdi is also a senior member of the nuclear committee of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.
He suggested that the 5+1 powers return to the "negotiating table as soon as possible." He also claimed that if negotiations "had begun a few months ago without" what he called an "irrelevant insistence on [enrichment] suspension," the international community would have been in a better position today to reach a general agreement. Borujerdi said reticence displayed by Security Council members Indonesia and South Africa before the vote showed there was no real consensus on the resolution. He said those and other nonaligned states showed "serious opposition" to "pressure" on Iran in any meeting "not dominated by America."
Borujerdi rejected any suspension of enrichment activities by Iran in exchange for a suspension of sanctions. He claimed Iran did this in the past but achieved nothing because of 5+1 opposition to a "mutually acceptable solution."
No Relenting On Enrichment
Another legislator and a member of the parliamentary presidium, Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, warned after the latest Security Council vote that "there is no possibility of [suspension] by Iran" as such a move is against national interests and public wishes, ISNA reported on March 25.
Iran may well react beyond verbal protests, and restrict access to its installations by IAEA inspectors. Borujerdi told Mehr on March 25 that "parliament will certainly" react to Resolution 1747 when it reconvenes after Iran's new-year holidays in April and after consultations with relevant officials.
More immediately, government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on March 25 that the cabinet had approved the suspension of parts of Iran's program of cooperation with the IAEA. He noted that the move was in line with a parliamentary law passed on December 27, 2006, obliging the government to review such collaborations.
Elham said Iran's Atomic Energy Organization would suspend the implementation of sections 1 and 3 of "peripheral arrangements" to the safeguards agreement signed with the IAEA in 2003 concerning enhanced Iranian cooperation. Elham said Iran had accepted in that agreement -- specifically in those sections -- to give the IAEA six months' notice on details of any of its plans or decisions on creating "any form of installations or on implementing any nuclear-related program," while Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) members are required to give just three months' notice. It was unclear if this was part of Iran's past commitment to implement the additional protocol to the NPT or a separate agreement.
The resolution and Iran's reactions appear for now to have left the dispute in a legalistic and verbal quagmire. Both sides cite legal clauses or evidence -- or the increasingly pseudo-legal territory of the international community's wishes and concerns.
But the impasse is over the key issue of enrichment and fuel making. And continuing Western distrust of Iran's potential or future use of related know-how -- and perhaps more broadly of the Islamic republic's intentions in the foreign policy sphere. The question of how to address this distrust remains.
Naval Incident Heightens Tensions With Britain
Britain strenuously rejects this, saying the sailors were engaged on a routine antismuggling patrol in Iraqi waters. Prime Minister Tony Blair called Iran's seizure of the 15 sailors in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway "very serious," and he regards the Iranian action as "wrong and unjustified."
"I hope the Iranian government understand how fundamental an issue this is for us," Blair said. "We have certainly sent those messages back to them very, very clearly indeed. I hope that this can be resolved over the next few days, but the quicker it is resolved the easier it will be for all of us."
However, the Iranian government appears unwilling to simply hand back the 14 men and one woman. It says it is considering court action against them for illegal entry into Iranian territorial waters. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki claimed this is not the first such incident.
"The Iranian authorities intercepted these sailors and marines in Iranian waters and detained them in Iranian waters," Mottaki said. "This had happened in the past as well. And in terms of legal matters, we are looking into that and it's under investigation."
Britain has demanded immediate consular access to the detainees, and their swift release. However, the Iranians have taken them to an unknown destination and said that consular access "may" be granted at some later date.
The British account of the incident is that the sailors were on a routine motorboat patrol in Iraqi waters, inspecting merchant shipping for smuggled goods, when their two launches were surrounded by armed Iranian naval units, and taken away. All are crewmembers of the British frigate "HMS Cornwall."
The incident occurs at a time of high tension between the world powers and Iran over Tehran's refusal to obey a UN demand to abandon uranium enrichment. On March 24, the UN Security Council decided unanimously to impose new sanctions on Iran.
Iran has responded with continued defiance. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that not for "one second" will Iran stop its nuclear program. There are international fears that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, something that Tehran denies.
Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said that because of the new sanctions, Iran will limit its cooperation with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based body that monitors compliance with nonproliferation rules.
British commentators, notably "The Times" daily, have linked the gunpoint detention of the Britons to the overall deterioration in the situation, saying that the boarding party may have been deliberately ambushed so that they can be used as "hostages" in the broader game.
Professor Ali Nourizadeh, of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, agrees with that view. "I believe this was a deliberate, very well-planned operation which has taken place in the Shat Al-Arab; they dragged the British soldiers over to Iranian waters to arrest them. It was a well-planned operation by a special unit of the [elite] Revolutionary Guards' navy."
Nourizadeh says the aim of the mission was to capture a large number of British military personnel and to use them as bargaining chips for the return of Revolutionary Guards captured by U.S. forces in Iraq. The Americans have described the captive Iranians as agents; but Iran has called them diplomats.
Show Of Strength
Nourizadeh also outlines a secondary motive which he sees in play, based on the Iranian government's expectation that the UN Security Council would pass the new sanctions package, which it did do the following day.
"They [the Iranian authorities] wanted to show to the Iranian people that they are strong, they are in control, and, if necessary, they are willing to fight with the British, and say, 'Look what we did, in bringing all those [captured British] soldiers to Tehran,'" Nourizadeh says.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic contacts continue. Both the British and Iranian governments summoned diplomats from the other side on March 25, and British officials say the British ambassador in Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, was seeking another meeting today.
In the aftermath of the naval incident, the ISNA news agency quoted the commander of naval forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Morteza Saffari, as warning the United States against mounting any military attack on Iran.
Mexican Museum Shows Domestic Side Of Persian Culture
"Persia: Fragments Of Paradise" was arranged in collaboration with the Iranian Embassy in Mexico and comprises items from Tehran's national museum. It seems quite topical, coinciding with the March 23 screening in Mexico of the already polemical film "300," which many Iranians complain paints a negative picture of ancient Persians.
Most items in the exhibition are household items -- bowls, pottery, gold, and silverware. They reveal both the long history of sedentary living on the Iranian plateau and a love of home and domestic activities: eating, drinking, and serving -- the essential components of social life in the Middle East.
Notable items include a finger-sized "Venus Of Sarab" from the western Kermanshah Province -- a terracotta figurine with bulbous thighs and breasts dating from around 6,000 B.C.
The National Anthropology Museum exhibition shows another Iranian civilization: one that is humane and fonder of idyllic pastures, home, and the luxuries of daily life than of war.
Another terracotta item is a large, but fine bowl from Esmailabad near Qazvin, west of Tehran, dated 5,000 B.C. and painted with a constellation of rhomboid motifs.
A nearby section displays several earthenware bowls from around 1,000 B.C, found in several sites in Gilan, northern Iran. These are vessels with humanoid and animalistic features: human legs or elongated spouts suggesting bird beaks.
Animal and floral motifs recur in all the artistic periods encompassed by the show. This might be surprising, as relatively few Iranians today have household pets. The importance of animals may be due to the nomadic origins of Iranians and their constant contact with nature.
Lions, gazelles, birds, and bulls abound. Bull heads are a favored feature, whether as handles on silver jugs; on conical drinking vessels known as rhytons; or, in giant dimensions, as capitals on the hundreds of columns supporting the ceilings at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian kings from the 5th to the late 4th centuries B.C.
The World Of Ancient Persepolis
The Mexico exhibition also has video displays to provide background information. A large screen shows a computer-generated reconstruction of buildings and ceremonies at Persepolis, revealing what stones and photographs might not: the feel of the place in its hey-day.
Persepolis was a gigantic complex begun in the late 6th century B.C, built over generations, and burned down in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great. An announcer on the video reads out, in ancient Persian with Spanish subtitles, the lines on a silver plaque found at Persepolis, reporting the inauguration of the palace under Darius I. It is likely the first time many museum-goers have heard the sounds of the ancient Persian language.
To help Mexicans contextualize the displays in historical terms, large posters provide a simultaneous chronology of historical developments in Mexico and Iran.
The posters show that wheat was being cultivated in Iran in 5,000 B.C. and corn in Mexico about the same time. But the chronologies also show that while sedentary living developed synchronously in these distant lands, civilization -- or systematic government over large areas -- sped ahead in the Middle East.
Mexico And The Middle East
Many of Mexico's pre-Columbian cities flourished from the time of the Roman Empire onward. The exception is the Olmec civilization -- the earliest large-scale civilization of central America, which left behind some colossal sculpted heads in the state of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico. The religion and mythology of the Olmecs, who coincided broadly with the Assyrians in the 9th century B.C., then the Medes and Achaemenid dynasties, set the cultural tone and worldview for subsequent civilizations in Mexico.
The next leading city of ancient Mexico, Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, began to develop at about the time of Persepolis, when many cities and empires had already come and gone in the Near East. The Mayan city-states -- now a collection of fantastic ruins punctuating the jungles of southern Mexico and central America -- are relatively "modern."
The Mayan peak era coincided with the advent of Islam, the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, the 11th Seljuk Turks, and even the early Ottomans in Anatolia or the Safavids in Persia. The Aztecs flourished from the 14th to the 16th centuries, when Persian civilization, pulverized by the Mongols and by Tamerlane, was, in many respects, in decline.
Two Sides To Every Story
No doubt many of the thousands of visitors, including schoolchildren, who have seen the exhibition will soon see the film "300," which depicts, with somewhat extravagant imagery, the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, when 300 Spartans led by one of their kings, Leonidas, defended a pass against a much larger Persian army of King Xerxes I.
The film has upset many Iranians, including the Iranian government, for its presentation of the ancient Persians as grotesque and decadent. Had he lived, the New-York based Palestinian academic Edward Said might have termed the film a perfect example of the Western vice he examined in his book "Orientalism" -- a distorted vision of the East as essentially different, impervious to reason and moderation, and threatening.
The National Anthropology Museum exhibition shows another Iranian civilization: one that is humane and fonder of idyllic pastures, home, and the luxuries of daily life than of war. The multinational empire of the Achaemenids brought peace to the Middle East for two centuries.
Another legacy of Persia is its institution of a particular vision of monarchy: the universal monarchy, featuring a single and uniquely legitimate monarch. It was a concept that was an enduring part of the monarchical principle throughout European history, and eagerly espoused by Persia's political heirs: Alexander, the Seleucids, the emperors of Byzantium, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs.
"Persia: Fragments Of Paradise" was due to end on March 25, but was extended until April 22.