Writing Friday for Asia Times Online, Kaveh Afrasiabi attributed to the Iran-U.K. stand-off in the Persian Gulf the notably anti-American tone at the Arab summit in Riyadh this week.  --  "Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was invited to the Arab summit at the last moment and only after the outbreak of the crisis over the British sailors," he wrote.  "In fact, on the eve of the summit, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi declined to attend and sent a message that he would refuse to participate in an 'anti-Iran' spectacle aimed at pitting 'Sunnis versus Shi'ites.'  Both Iranian and Arab papers have reported on the recent meeting of U.S. officials with the intelligence chiefs of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia over forming a new anti-Iran network."  --  "Clearly," Afrasiabi concluded, "Tehran's row with London has had immediate dividends with respect to Iran's regional clout, causing pro-Iran sympathies in the Arab world." ...


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Middle East

IRAN AHEAD OF THE GAME -- FOR NOW
By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Asia Times Online
March 30, 2007

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/IC30Ak04.html

"The U.S. is not escalating tensions with Iran," said a Pentagon spokesperson in reference to the major U.S. naval exercise in Persian Gulf "off the coast of Iran," per the wire reports. That is, a hair stretch beyond Iran's 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.

The Iranians can be excused if they think otherwise -- that the purpose of the massive U.S. maneuver at their doorstep, involving two aircraft-carrier task forces and some 10,000 troops, is to send a "strong signal" to them about the price they may have to pay if they persist in defying the will of U.S. power and its allies. This is not to mention a French aircraft carrier making a solidarity appearance in Persian Gulf waters at the same time, thus adding to the overall Western menace with regard to Iran. [NOTE: The U.S. announced Friday that on Monday it is dispatching another carrier strike group, headed up by the USS Nimitz, from San Diego, bound for the Persian Gulf. --R.T.]

As usual, the U.S. double-speak has continued unabated. Thus, precisely at a time when the overwhelming weight of U.S. firepower is put on full display against the Iranians, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed the his country's readiness to engage in "high-level" dialogue with Iran, as if to make a small dent in any Iranian paranoia about the military intentions of the United States.

Gates' small words of comfort have been overshadowed, however, by the physical assemblage of brute force piled up in the narrow corridors of the Persian Gulf and, more so, by the dire warning issued by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in response to the Iranian seizure of 15 British sailors.

Yet no sooner had Blair threatened to take the issue to "the next phase" than his foreign secretary tried damage control by mollifying his statement and putting the emphasis on "back-door channels."

The latter, it turns out, includes the Turkish government, which has jumped at the opportunity to prove Turkey's value to Europe as a bridge to the Muslim Middle East by offering to mediate in the standoff and to inspect the seized sailors. Should Turkey achieve a breakthrough in this unfolding "dangerous" crisis, the ramifications with respect to its bid to join the European Union will be huge.

Simultaneously, there are other reasons to expect a prominent role for Turkey, given a growing expressed desire in Iran for a "prisoners' exchange" and the fact that at least one, and perhaps as many as five, Iranians apprehended by the U.S. were abducted in Turkey. Others, including some diplomats, were abducted from Iraq.

As a result, if Turkey is to be instrumental in resolving the Iran-British crisis, its leadership must do so with an eye toward an exchange of prisoners. Turkey's failure, on the other hand, will probably cast a large cloud over an Iraq security summit that is scheduled to take place in Istanbul in April. Among others, representatives from the U.S. and Iran are due to meet.

All signs indicate that with the exception of the sole female sailor, the release of the other 14 captives is not imminent, no matter how tough Blair's rhetoric or the pressures exerted by the British government and the EU.

Various Iranian politicians, including a powerful member of parliament (Majlis), Mohammad Reza Bahonar, have stated that London should not expect Iran to ignore the violation of Iran's sovereignty lightly. Iran's embassy in London, contradicting the British claim that the sailors were in Iraqi waters, has issued a statement that puts the sailors half a mile inside Iranian territorial waters.

Such categorical statements by both sides invite a lengthy standoff and tie the hands of those in Iran who may wish a quick end to this controversy. This is particularly so in light of the economic pinch caused by the British government's freeze on bilateral trade with Iran (worth some US$2 billion). Should Iran make good on its threat to begin legal proceedings against the sailors, the EU may follow suit and penalize Iran where it hurts most -- on the trade and economic front.

GAINS AND LOSSES FOR IRAN

According to an Iranian political analyst seasoned in "threat analysis," Iran's ability to play hardball with Britain serves the national interest at a time when Western powers manipulate the Middle East landscape almost at will. "Iran is sending a clear message that the 'buck stops here,'" he told the author.

Apparently, the message is not lost on Iran's neighbors, and at the opening ceremony of an Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah warned "foreign powers" to stop meddling in the affairs of the region, since the days when they could impose their wills on the people of the region had passed.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was invited to the Arab summit at the last moment and only after the outbreak of the crisis over the British sailors. In fact, on the eve of the summit, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi declined to attend and sent a message that he would refuse to participate in an "anti-Iran" spectacle aimed at pitting "Sunnis versus Shi'ites." Both Iranian and Arab papers have reported on the recent meeting of U.S. officials with the intelligence chiefs of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia over forming a new anti-Iran network.

Clearly, Tehran's row with London has had immediate dividends with respect to Iran's regional clout, causing pro-Iran sympathies in the Arab world. Arabs now see in Iran's "heroic" standing up to "Western imperialists" a source of much-needed inspiration and hope, in contrast to their own feckless leadership. "The Arabs of the Persian Gulf are now less inclined to join the U.S. and Israel against Iran than they were a mere week ago," a former Iranian diplomat told the author.

Rising oil prices (more than $65 a barrel) due to the crisis represent yet another windfall that compensates to some extent for the economic losses caused by Europe's backlash. Iran's "calculated escalation" has not only helped lift nationalist spirits in Iran, it has also bridged the gaps between the nuclear crisis and the Iraq crisis. It has served as a sort of catalytic convergence of what had hitherto been regarded as discrete issues, serving notice on their interconnections and thus putting a premium on the omnibus of punitive measures against Iran.

Simultaneously, the combined U.S. maneuvers and London's fiery rhetoric against Iran have made Moscow and Beijing realize the explosive nature of the situation, inducing them to draw a red line on their support for the United States' designs against Iran.

Thus, in their joint statement in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao warned the U.S. against making any military moves on Iran. The United States' painstakingly assembled international coalition against Iran at the United Nations has now been put to severe new tests. It is far from clear that, by the time the Security Council meets again some two months from now to consider the Iran nuclear crisis, the coalition will even be intact.

On the negative side, Iran's nuclear diplomacy may suffer as a result of the current tussle with Britain, by alienating the EU and thus depriving Iran of an important venue to seek a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear crisis.

Iran's preference is to re-engage the EU in direct talks and by indirectly convincing the U.S. that it should give a nod to another round of Iran-EU nuclear talks. This strategy hinges, however, on Iran's ability to nuance the dispute with London over the sailors in a purely legal and procedural channel that would somehow insulate its nuclear diplomacy (as much as possible).

Whether or not this is likely or, obversely, we will witness the unintended consequences of a mini-crisis run wild after Blair's threat, remains to be seen.

--Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D., is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism," Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.