Iran Ups The Ante With Capture Of British Soldiers

Iran has upped the diplomatic, rhetorical and quite possibly military ante with its capture of 15 British sailors and its threat to put them on trial.

This and Iran’s vow Sunday to continue working on its nuclear program despite tougher U.N. sanctions either reflect the regime’s desire for brinksmanship — or it’s an attempt to raise the bargaining stakes.

In recent weeks, various news reports have indicated that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been under political fire for his confrontational political line that has accentuated tensions between Iran and the United States, for his comments about the holocaust, and for his rhetoric that has brought increased sanctions against Iran, which is quickly becoming a “rogue nation.” So it’ll be interesting to see how this current crisis plays out in terms of international response and internal consequences (if any) within Iran.

The one certainty: Iran is facing a huge crisis now with Great Britain. The Telegraph:

[British Prime Minister] Tony Blair warned Iran last night that it has only a few days to find a diplomatic solution to the escalating crisis over the 15 missing British sailors and Marines.

As the tension grew, the first direct high-level talks took place between Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, and Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to press Britain’s concerns.

The moves came as the Foreign Office admitted it had no idea what has happened to the 15 Navy personnel seized by the Iranian military on Friday. The Prime Minister, in his first public comments since the incident, appeared to signal a hardening of attitudes after more than 48 hours of low-level diplomacy….

“We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong.”

So what was really behind Iran’s seizure of the sailors? Pajamas Media offers this interesting report:

American forces in Iraq now hold some 300 prisoners tied to Iran’s intelligence agencies, Pajamas Media learned from both diplomatic and military sources.

This is believed, by both sources, to be a record number of prisoners tied to Iran. Virtually all were captured in the past two months.

This week’s seizure of 15 British sailors by Iran in the contested waters of the Shattab al-Arab, the ship channel that divides Iraq and Iran, may have been payback for the capture of record number of Iranian operatives inside Iraq. “It may be a bargaining chip,� one diplomatic source said.

The intelligence community is still debating whether the unlawful detainment of British sailors was ordered by Iran’s government or was presented to it as a fait accompli by relatively low-level Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers.

The roughly 300 prisoners held in Iraq—the number grows frequently—are either Iranian nationals or Shiites recruited from neighboring countries that are employed one of its almost two dozen intelligence or paramilitary services.

The record haul of Iran-linked prisoners may not be a sign of Iran’s increasing involvement in Iraq. The Islamic Republic’s participation in the Iraq war, which includes funding, arming and training both Shiite and Sunni militias, has been known to be significant for some time.

More likely, the large number of Iran-linked prisoners reflects a change in tactics following the arrival of Multinational Force Iraq commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. Previously, Iranians and other foreigners could not be picked up without a provable connection to terrorism. Now, American and allied forces are encouraged to seize militants based on a reasonable suspicion of involvement in insurgent attacks. This is consistent with Iraqi law.

So the question becomes:

Is Great Britain in effect an unwilling proxy for the U.S. in the case of this latest Iranian crisis? Several news reports have echoed Pajamas Media on this point (although not in quite as much detail). Relations between the United States and Iran are at their lowest, most bellicose state. But relations between the United States and Iran have been like a roller coaster for years.