Pawns in Tehran's bitter power struggle

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The Independent Online

Conflicting messages from Tehran yesterday suggested that the eight British sailors held by Iran's Revolutionary Guards are pawns in a domestic political struggle.

Conflicting messages from Tehran yesterday suggested that the eight British sailors held by Iran's Revolutionary Guards are pawns in a domestic political struggle.

On one side are the established parts of government such as the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Defence Ministry, which have given out positive signs that the situation can be resolved. On the other are hardline conservatives made up of Revolutionary Guard commanders and powerful clerics who have been gathering strength over the past year and have become more assertive since their victory in February's controversial parliamentary election.

The footage of the sailors sitting crosslegged and blindfolded against a wall suggested a hardening stance by their captors. The Fars news agency also said they would be handed over to the religious judiciary - a power centre of the hardliners - for a decision.

British officials trying to gain access to the men are in contact with the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in London. Both are controlled by President Khatami's reformist administration, which is expected to be crippled by the right in its final year of office.

The Foreign Affairs Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, promised Jack Straw yesterday that he would look into the reasons for the sailors' detention. And the Defence Minister, also a reformist, said he thought the situation was "solvable".

What do the hardliners have to gain? First, it shows their anger at Britain's role in several areas - from the harsh resolution it co-sponsored at the International Atomic Energy Agency, to an EU condemnation of Iran's human rights record, to its action in Iraq. In May, thousands of conservatives marched in Tehran to oppose the occupation of Shia holy cities. Several hundred extremists then threw rocks and explosives at the British embassy.

But anger at the British should also be seen in the context of the Revolutionary Guards' wider growth in power. They control the city hall in Tehran and the national broadcasting company, and may seek the conservative nomination in next year's presidential election. It has even been suggested that a ban on hookah pipes has been overseen by conservatives, who associate them with flirting.

The new international airport became another focal point last month when the Revolutionary Guards closed it after just one flight. They said it was because it was run by a Turkish company.

The organisation controls a business empire that is said to be worth hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. Some reformists have alleged it runs a network of ports that are used for smuggling.

The muted response of the Iranian press also suggests the seizure was more about domestic politics than international law. The conservative papers ran a news story without comment and state television has run it as a secondary item. Only one newspaper - the moderately conservative Hamshahri - had an editorial piece. The British, it said, "must be aware of the result of their immature actions ... The Persian Gulf is the gulf of Iran and it plays by its own rules."

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