OpinionIran in the World PressLeading article: A perilous stand-off in the Gulf that...

Leading article: A perilous stand-off in the Gulf that is rooted in the calamitous Iraq war

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The Independent: Yesterday’s capture of 15 British sailors and marines by Iranian forces precipitates a diplomatic crisis of the first order. The first visible effect yesterday was a sharp rise in the price of crude oil. A less visible effect was an even sharper rise in the international political temperature. The situation is now fraught with danger: for bilateral relations, for regional security – and for Tony Blair. The Independent

This dispute between Britain and Iran provides an unfortunate backdrop to an already tense occasion

Yesterday’s capture of 15 British sailors and marines by Iranian forces precipitates a diplomatic crisis of the first order. The first visible effect yesterday was a sharp rise in the price of crude oil. A less visible effect was an even sharper rise in the international political temperature. The situation is now fraught with danger: for bilateral relations, for regional security – and for Tony Blair.

One way or another, this is a stand-off that has been building for months. After a lull in which the US, Britain and Iran all seemed to favour patience, British officials recently renewed their accusations of Iranian interference in Iraq. Such charges have become a barometer, not just of the security in Iraq, but of the state of Western relations with Iran. Allegations made public early yesterday about an Iranian hand in the increasingly frequent attacks on British troops in Basra were a clear sign that the climate was deteriorating.

Now, the detention of British servicemen threatens a complete breakdown in relations. Nor will Britain be the only loser. As a member of the European Union troika, Britain argued that negotiations were the only way to resolve the nuclear dispute between the United States and Iran. It was largely thanks to the troika that UN sanctions on Iran were no more stringent than they are and that the threat of US military action has receded. Britain could now move closer to Washington’s tougher line.

The rights and wrongs of yesterday’s incident may, of course, be less clear-cut than they appear. It is reported that the British had just “successfully” completed the inspection of an Iranian merchant ship. Under what authority, and to what end? And while the British insist they were in Iraqi waters, local maritime borders can be contentious. Add the fact that Iran was conducting naval manoeuvres at the time, and more questions are raised. The potential for overreaction, on both sides, was enormous.

The timing could hardly be worse either. This dispute between Britain and Iran provides an unfortunate backdrop to an occasion that was already bound to be tense: the UN Security Council meeting to vote on new sanctions against Iran. The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he wanted to address the meeting. The US insisted yesterday that it had issued visas for his delegation; Iran denied it had received them. The vote is expected late today.

Should Iran feel that the US has put pressure on the UN to deny it an audience, this will only exacerbate its sense of injustice. The temptation for Tehran then to flout international opinion and pursue its nuclear ambitions unilaterally will be great. With Mr Ahmadinejad’s domestic popularity falling and his demagogic force not what it was, he cannot afford any appearance of diplomatic defeat. With so much insecurity and instability about in this region, the situation could hardly be more volatile.

It is incidents such as yesterday’s, erupting in areas bristling with military hardware and edgy troops, that can trigger a wider military confrontation. But this particular flare-up threatens serious domestic political implications too. The only reason Britain and Iran see each other as a threat, on land or sea, is that we joined the US invasion of Iraq and now find ourselves fighting a multifarious insurgency in what is essentially Iran’s backyard.

Iran well knows the value of Western captives. The US embassy hostage crisis blighted the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Unless the 15 are released quickly, this hostage crisis could add yet another sad dimension to the Iraq legacy of Tony Blair.

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