Katherine Butler: Iran has rarely been less likely to do favours for Western powers

Share
Related Topics

David Miliband sounded positive as he expressed the hope last night that the detention of a yachtload of British sailors by Iran would be "resolved swiftly". The families of the hapless yachtsmen will have to pray the Foreign Secretary's words are based on more than wishful thinking. Because Iran has rarely been in less of a mood to do favours for any Western power, let alone Britain, the country which arouses most suspicion in the minds of its leaders.

This incident has all the makings of the latest protracted crisis between Iran and the West in which the five yachtsmen could become pawns. Clearly these sailors are not naval personnel, and Mr Miliband will be doing everything to reassure Tehran that they strayed innocently into Iranian waters. On the face of it, there is tactically little for Iran to gain, even in its deepening nuclear stand-off with the West, by holding them for more than a few days.

By last night, it was still not clear if Iran had accused the men of spying or any other misdeeds. The hopeful scenario is that they will be freed in a gesture of magnanimity, sent on their way in a blaze of handshakes and photographs, perhaps even dressed in identical Iranian-made suits, just like the eight British naval personnel arrested by Iran in 2007, and eventually freed as "a gift" to the UK.

But there are several recent precedents to suggest a more ominous outcome. Three American hikers strayed over the Iraqi border into Iran earlier this year apparently while on a trekking holiday. They were seized, taken to Tehran and are now facing trial for espionage. A few months before them, Roxana Saberi, a young American-Iranian journalist was convicted of spying and sent to jail for eight years, although she was eventually freed.

Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at St Andrews University believes much will hang on the fact that the yachtsmen's fate will be decided by just two men: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and his close ally, the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Neither is remotely interested in mollifying the West.

Indeed, since the disputed June elections which returned Mr Ahmadinejad to power, events inside the country have put this axis hugely on the defensive. The Supreme Leader and the President are waging a power struggle with clerical and reformist factions who accuse them of betraying the ideals of the Islamic revolution. They are also engaged in a brutal suppression of groups and individuals who organised the post-election street demonstrations, the biggest show of opposition since the 1979 revolution. Did the five-man yachting crew play (or sail) directly into the regime's hands, presenting the perfect "crisis" from abroad they can exploit?

As Dr Ansari says: "My guess is they will hang on to them because it will help divert attention domestically and also divert the foreign media from demonstrations planned for 7 December. There is always method to their madness."

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

£18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

Recruitment Genius: Designer

£32969 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Data Engineer

£35000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Data Engineer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence