When the Iranians announced Friday that they had captured 15 British sailors and Royal Marines, it didn't take a military or intelligence analyst to see how this drama would play out. First, the captives--taken during an anti-smuggling enforcement mission along the Shatt al-Arab waterway--were moved to Tehran, for potential media exposure, and to reduce the chances of a lightning raid by allied SOF to free them.
Next, the Iranian government announced that the captured Britons would be tried on espionage charges, supposedly highlight the "gravity" of the incident. And, almost as quickly, Tehran claimed that it had obtained "confessions" from some of the captives, providing more evidence for a "show trial," should that need arise. Obviously, any confession procured at this point in captivity was likely the result of duress; press reporting from both the U.K. and the Middle East indicates that the British personnel are now in the hands of the Iranian intelligence service, which has few qualms about using sensory deprivation--and more extreme forms of "persuasion"--to obtain desired information.
At first, there was some speculation about Tehran's motives behind the hostage-taking. Was it aimed at influencing the U.N. Security Council's vote on tougher nuclear sanctions? Or, merely a reminder to London (and Washington) that Iran can easily influence events in the gulf region, and make it more difficult for our British partners to maintain a limited military presence in Iraq.
Britain's Sunday Mirror offers another--and more plausible--rationale for the event, claiming that Tehran will demand the release of up to 50 Iranian spies (previously captured by the British in southern Iraq), in exchange for the return of the sailors and marines. The paper says that the Iranian agents have been captured in recent years, by British forces operating in the Basra region.
I'll take that analysis a step further and predict that Tehran will also demand the return of some of the high-ranking IRGC and Qods force personnel recently arrested by U.S. forces. At least one of those detainees is reported to be a general officer, and a senior Iranian diplomat is also among those captives. Iran is clearly concerned that those officials could reveal vital information about Tehran's terrorist support network in Iraq and would like to get them back, to minimize further damage.
Talks between Britain and Iran over the matter and continuing, but the crisis shows no indication of being quickly resolved. Indeed, the Blair government would be well advised to prepare for the long haul. Tehran clearly wants some of its captured spies back, and it's clearly willing to detain the British personnel to exert more pressure on the British--and on us. Officially, the matter of those captured diplomats and IRGC personnel hasn't surfaced (yet), but it almost certainly will in the coming days. The Iranians understand that demanding the return of the Brits (in exchange for operatives held by the U.S.) could create a divide between London and Washington, something that Tehran would clearly welcome.
At this point, no one is predicting an extended captivity for the British prisoners (along the lines of what our embassy personnel endured in 1979-80), but--given the present circumstances--the odds of a quick, negotiated settlement seem almost nil. Both the U.K. and the U.S. will have to resist the temptation to give in to some--or all--of Iran's demands, despite some of the televised "confessions" and humanitarian pleas that will likely follow. We should all keep those brave sailors and Marines in our prayers, with the realization that this was a carefully planned and orchestrated kidnapping, aimed at achieving critical political goals. And, from the Iranian perspective, the incident was necessary because our policies against Tehran are working. All the more reason to sustain the pressure against Iran, and make it clear that the country's rulers are directly responsible for the captives' safety and well-being.