Why Does Tehran Free the Britons But Refuse to Signal the Release of the Three Israeli Servicemen?
The 15 British sailors and marines were seized by a Revolutionary Guards task force Friday, March 23, in northern Gulf waters that have been disputed between Iraq and Iran. Their families saw them alive and well in one Iranian television broadcast after another.
In contrast, all three Israeli soldiers were abducted in cross-border raids – Gideon Shalit by a Hamas-led band which crossed from Gaza in June 2006, and Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, kidnapped in Israel by the Hizballah the following the month.
None of the three have been seen or heard of since. No international visitors are allowed, no letters or any other access to their hidden places of imprisonment.
But the British and Israeli cases do have a common factor: Iran, which captured and freed the British sailors and marines, also has the authority to weigh in for the Israeli captives’ release with its Lebanese proxy and the Hamas-led group of Popular Resistance Committees and al Qaeda Falastin in Gaza. It is in Iran’s power to end the long agony of uncertainty suffered by their families.
But Tehran refuses to give the signal. Iran’s leaders appreciate that Israel’s military strength is at least three times that of the British army, air force and navy. The trouble is they do not respect Israel’s prime minister Ehud Olmert. They believe the Lebanon War fiasco has deprived him of international leverage for generating the political and military pressure to force Tehran’s hand.
Tony Blair’s campaign to free the sailors was backed by American military might. His declaration Tuesday, April 3, that the next 48 hours would be critical in solving the crisis, was received in Tehran as an ultimatum, after which UK-US military action would be on the cards.
Iran’s leaders decided to take no chances. In the nick of time, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was ordered by his more pragmatic superior, the Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to announce the captives would be freed “as a gift to the British people.”
In contrast, Olmert vowed at the outset of the Lebanon War in July 2006 that Israel would fight on until the two kidnapped soldiers were recovered.
His failure to meet this goal – and the war’s other objectives – has irreparably damaged his credibility in the Arab and Muslim world. This showed up clearly in their derisive response to the prime minister’s Eve of Passover call Sunday, April 1, for a peace conference attended by Arab rulers and himself.
The prime minister’s office in Jerusalem had no comeback to this response.
This inertia is part of a broader malaise: the Olmert government has refrained from action to stem the massive rearmament of Hizballah in Lebanon since the war and the war build-up of the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami in the Gaza Strip since Israel’s pull-back in 2005. It does not seem to occur to Ehud Olmert and his ministers that every ton of war materiel reaching these groups adds to their strength and their determination not to let their Israeli hostages go.
Noam Shalit, father of one of the kidnapped soldiers, remarked at one of the many popular demonstrations of support he attended: “I would like to say to the prime minister: This is not a property deal.”
This slur struck home: it told Olmert that instead of behaving like a statesman and moving boldly on the world scene, he was seen to be managing state affairs in his former mode as a real estate lawyer.”
The British government still pretends that the British crew was freed by “dialogue”, not negotiation or confrontation. Above all, London is at pains to stress that no deals were struck with Tehran. Blair has succeeded in rescuing thee British crew after only 12 days in captivity and has come out of the crisis well. But the price tag was there and he paid up. That was obvious on April 1, when a senior British defense official stated: “We are quite prepared to give the Iranians a guarantee that we would never knowingly enter their waters without their permission, now or in the future.”
This concession is immensely significant. It excludes the British from participation in any American assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities; it removes the British barrier to Iranian intervention and influence in the southern Iraq border regions under British control; British military personnel charged with guarding Iraqi Gulf waters and oil installations will be unable to carry out their mission for fear of being accused of straying into Iranian territory.
President George W. Bush supported Tony Blair’s efforts to free the British crew, while ruling out a quid pro quo – meaning his support did not go as far as freeing the five Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers held by US forces in Iraq since January.
But the end of the crisis removes the last obstacle to the Istanbul conference in April at which US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice will meet Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki for the first direct US-Iranian contact in three decades.
Tehran, which wants the encounter as much as Washington, in the hope of obtaining legitimacy for its nuclear program, paid its way by releasing the British sailors.
With this triumph under its belt, the Islamic Republic will be even harder to approach on the fate of the three Israeli hostages. The chances of Gilead Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Ehud Regev rejoining their families any time soon unfortunately recede again.