Daily Telegraph: Suddenly, Iran is everybody’s friend. The safe return to Britain of 15 sailors and Marines in time to celebrate Easter with their families and friends has shown the ayatollahs in a new light. Gone is the image of a regime that represses its people and seeks the annihilation of its foes. Forgotten are the chants of the Friday prayer worshippers calling for the destruction of America, the “Great Satan”, and “Little Satan”, as Britain is disparagingly referred to in the parlance of Iran’s radical mosques. The Daily Telegraph
By Con Coughlin
Suddenly, Iran is everybody’s friend.
The safe return to Britain of 15 sailors and Marines in time to celebrate Easter with their families and friends has shown the ayatollahs in a new light. Gone is the image of a regime that represses its people and seeks the annihilation of its foes. Forgotten are the chants of the Friday prayer worshippers calling for the destruction of America, the “Great Satan”, and “Little Satan”, as Britain is disparagingly referred to in the parlance of Iran’s radical mosques.
Instead, we now find ourselves having to come to terms with a regime that is rational, benign and generous of spirit. For how else can one explain the magnanimity of the Iranians in arranging the captives’ safe return? They had, after all, been caught red-handed conducting military operations within Iranian territorial waters.
We know this, of course, because of the “confessions” the captives made on television before their release. Such was the gravity of their crime that the Iranians believed they had every right to put them on trial where, if convicted, they faced lengthy jail terms. But by arranging for their return home, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Revolutionary Guards commander who was hitherto deemed an ideologically driven menace, has shown himself to be a statesman of international repute. Rather than getting bogged down in a protracted dispute over territorial boundaries, he found it within himself to forgive the Servicemen and to send them home.
The logical conclusion – or so many will now argue – to be drawn from this transformation in the way we view the Iranian government is that if goodwill can prevail over an issue as delicate as the detention of British Servicemen, why can’t it be extended to other areas of dispute, such as Iran’s support for radical Shia groups in Iraq and its desire to acquire nuclear technology?
That is certainly the kind of response the ayatollahs will be hoping for now. But while the Servicemen’s release might appear to be a simple act of altruism, an ulterior motive is never far from their minds.
In terms of seeking Iran’s help in securing the release of British hostages, we have been here before. The Iranians were pivotal in ending the captivity of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and all the other Western hostages in Lebanon during the 1980s. But then they were best placed to do so, having ordered the hostages’ abduction in the first place.
Iran has always seen terrorism as a useful tool for achieving its political ambitions. On that occasion, they used the hostages as a bargaining chip to limit Western interference in the Gulf after the campaign to liberate Kuwait in 1991. The moment the allies fulfilled their pledge to disband the coalition assembled to defeat Saddam’s occupation forces, Waite et al were released.
A similar subtext lies at the heart of Ahmadinejad’s decision to release the British Servicemen. The Iranians are concerned that their attempts to consolidate their hold over radical Shia groups in southern Iraq are being frustrated by the American and British military, especially after a number of Revolutionary Guard officers were detained for their involvement in equipping Iraqi insurgent groups with deadly weaponry, including the materials used in roadside bombs such as the one that yesterday killed four British soldiers and their translator outside Basra.
Five Revolutionary Guard officers are still in American custody, and, while both London and Teheran insist no deal was done, it is surely no coincidence that an Iranian official was yesterday granted access to the detained officers, the first contact Teheran has had with them since their arrest at the start of the year.
But for Iran, the radicalisation of the Shia of southern Iraq is almost a sideshow compared with the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Even as Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Tony Blair’s foreign affairs guru, was in Teheran negotiating the release, work was continuing at Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz where the Iranians could have sufficient fissile material for an atom bomb by the end of next year.
The acquisition of a nuclear arsenal is the ayatollahs’ dream, and everything they do – whether it is grandstanding over the detention of a handful of British Servicemen or prevaricating with UN nuclear inspectors – is aimed at achieving this ambition. With yet another UN deadline approaching for the Iranians to cease uranium enrichment at Natanz or face tougher sanctions, the issue of the British captives provided Ahmadinejad with the perfect platform to demonstrate to an international audience the benefits to be gained from treating Teheran with respect, not threats.
As Ahmadinejad made clear in the rambling, two-hour anti-Western diatribe he delivered before dramatically announcing the captives’ release, Iran has as much of a right to develop nuclear technology as any other country, and, by letting them go free he and his advisers are seeking to reinforce the point that they are honourable men who, contrary to what Messrs Bush and Blair would have us believe, are perfectly capable of acting in good faith.
But if the Iranians are merely interested in developing nuclear technology as an alternative energy source, why, then, does their pattern of behaviour over a period of more than a decade suggest their intentions are far more sinister?
Why, for example, are the Iranians negotiating with North Korea to share the technological expertise Pyongyang gleaned from last year’s successful test-firing of an atom bomb? And why have the Iranians put the International Atomic Energy Agency under pressure to remove nuclear inspectors they consider to be too effective in uncovering glaring inconsistencies in Iran’s official declarations about its nuclear programme?
The answer to these and many other questions relating to Iran’s nuclear programme is that the Iranians are trying to conceal their true intentions. They might, as in the case of the British captives, appear both rational and reasonable, but only a fool would take their gestures of goodwill at face value.