LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has few alternatives to patient diplomacy as it tries to secure the release of 15 naval personnel held by Iran, with analysts all but ruling out use of force and sanctions widely seen as a slow, blunt weapon.
Iran’s capture of the sailors and marines is a particularly unwelcome crisis for Prime Minister Tony Blair as he prepares to step down in the next few months after a decade in office, underlining the limits of British power.
Tehran accuses the Britons of illegally entering its waters. Britain says they were searching a ship in Iraqi waters.
“Apart from ... engaging in private negotiations and turning down the megaphone diplomacy, I don’t think there’s very much else you can do,” said George Joffe, a Middle East specialist at Cambridge University’s Centre of International Studies.
With its forces stretched to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has little scope to use military force.
“They could ask the Americans to intervene (but) the Americans would be simply mad if they did,” Joffe said, pointing to the risk of Iranian-inspired retaliation in Iraq.
Any thought of launching a military mission to retrieve the British service personnel would anyway be tempered by memories of the failed 1980 U.S. commando mission to rescue 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days in the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Political analysts say a European Union threat to restrict trade or export credit guarantees for Iran could be effective in the long run, but there is a question whether big trade powers such as Germany would put their interests at risk by using such a weapon.
Britain has adopted a twin-track approach, working with its allies to put diplomatic pressure on Iran while “exploring the potential for dialogue with the Iranians”, as cabinet minister Douglas Alexander said on Sunday.
Blair has condemned Iran’s action and voiced disgust that Tehran put the captured sailors on television. Britain has frozen official contacts with Iran, which has not allowed London consular access to the sailors.
Britain has won strong support from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council. The EU said it would take “appropriate measures” if Tehran did not free the 15 detainees.
But Britain and Iran have also exchanged diplomatic notes and British officials have sought to ease tensions.
Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary, said “rhetoric by itself will not deliver freedom for these people” and pointed to the limitations of threats of sanctions.
“You need pressure, but if you’re going to make threats of economic sanctions for example they have to be made privately because otherwise the Iranians are pushed into a humiliating climbdown,” the opposition Conservative politician told the BBC.
The drama is played out against a backdrop of rising tensions between Iran and the United States and Britain over Iran’s nuclear programme. Western powers accuse Iran of trying to build nuclear bombs, but Tehran denies the charge.
Analysts say Iran wants the release of five men detained by U.S. forces in a raid on an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq in January. Iran maintains they are diplomats but Washington says they are linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Bush on Saturday ruled out swapping Iranians held by the United States in Iraq for the detained Britons.
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