x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Quiet diplomacy brought a swift result for yachtsmen

Analysis Iran's reluctance to upset Dubai and Oman was probably the main reason for its decision to release the British sailors.

Shrewd British diplomacy played a role in Iran's unexpectedly swift release of the four sailors and a journalist who strayed into Iranian waters last week. But the main factor in Iran's decision not to exploit the incident for politics or propaganda was most likely its reluctance to upset Dubai and Oman, which organised the yachting race the Britons were about to join. "And there was probably some lobbying from Bahrain, which would have helped," said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at St Andrews University in Scotland.

If so, Britain - a country Iran demonises as the "colonial old fox" - was the collateral beneficiary of a goodwill gesture aimed at others. Just hours before the five were released, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lambasted Britain on Iranian state television. He accused London and Israel of being behind last week's sharp rebuke of Iran by the UN's nuclear watchdog. Tehran responded furiously to that censure by declaring it would build 10 new uranium enrichment plants. Given Tehran's confrontational mood - and a suggestion from Mr Ahmadinejad's chief of staff that the five Britons should be hauled before a judge to determine if they had "evil intentions" - most British media predicted the worst.

Many commentators recalled the incident in March 2007 when 15 British navy and marine personnel were arrested off the Iranian coast. They were paraded in front of Iranian television cameras before being released two weeks later as Mr Ahmadinejad's "gift to the British people". Some Iranian media, with apparent relish, had also anticipated a crisis this time. On the morning the five Britons were freed, a hardline Iranian daily spoke of the "suspicious sailing of British people in the Persian Gulf". Doomsayers on both sides were proved wrong.

The British government had been quick to rule out any parallels with the 2007 incident, stressing that the sailors were unarmed civilians involved in a sporting event. Iran always demands respect and Britain's tone was respectful from the outset. Iran also bristles at any pressure tactics, insisting foreign countries must not intervene in an attempt to short-circuit investigatory procedures simply because their nationals have got into difficulties.

London showed sensitivity. David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, insisted it was solely a consular matter that had nothing to do with politics or Iran's nuclear programme. After the men's release on Wednesday, he praised Tehran for handling the affair in a "straightforward, professional way". Iran, which has scapegoated Britain for its political turmoil following Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June, wisely chose not to escalate the affair. At the same time, Iran was seemingly keen to prove to its US-backed Arab Gulf neighbours it is not an adversary. The yacht the Britons were on is owned by Sail Bahrain, a personal project of King Hamad of Bahrain to promote his country's seafaring history. The Islamic republic's relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt are strained. But Tehran is on fairly friendly terms with Dubai and Oman and views them as helpful in reducing tensions with other Arab powers jittery about Iran's regional and nuclear ambitions. By seizing the Britons in the first place, Tehran also demonstrated to Gulf states hosting US military personnel that its Revolutionary Guards are in command of Iran's waters.

The release of the five Britons was remarkably fast by Iranian standards. The Revolutionary Guards who arrested them would have wanted to check the yacht so they could guarantee there was no hostile intent before freeing them. Usually such trespassing cases go before a judge. That appears not to have happened in this case. That Iran's Revolutionary Guards seemingly decided for themselves that the sailors were harmless sportsmen is a sign of the elite force's growing influence in Iranian affairs, a western diplomat in Tehran said. A European former diplomat to Iran, who requested anonymity, added: It "may just have been that, emotionally, Iran liked the way Britain handled things".

Tehran, in turn, may hope the West sees another signal in its release of the sailors, which could have ramifications on such issues as the nuclear dispute: treat us respectfully and we will respond in kind. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae