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Friday, 6 April 2007

6 April 2007

Funny, isn’t it, how we haven’t heard much about Iran’s nuclear programme over the past couple of weeks? Do you think that might be why they decided to pick up those sailors and marines in the Gulf?

After all, what better way of deflecting attention, just as the UN Security Council was wagging its finger again? Stage a nice little diversion, get the auld enemy all hot and bothered, and then play Mr Nice Guy and send the captives home in time for Easter …

Me? I don’t buy it. I have no inside knowledge, but I’ve been trying to put together the jig-saw, and this is the picture I’ve come up with.

First, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not a happy bunch: their hard-line allies were trounced in elections late last year, and then five of their finest were snatched from northern Iraq by the US military. So they were looking for a way to recoup a bit of self-esteem.

Enter stage right a couple of unsuspecting Royal Navy inflatables, poking their noses around the northern Gulf, making a nuisance of themselves, getting in the way of the lucrative smuggling trade. (Some of which, by the way, may well be benefiting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.)

Bingo. Keen local commander spots them, intercepts them, captures them. Bosses delighted, especially when they discover, as we learned only last night, that they’ve now got their hands on the Royal Navy’s only two inflatables in the area and their entire boarding party crew.

Remember, it’s the Iranian New Year. All the top politicos are spending quality time with their families. But that doesn’t stop the Propaganda Department showing off its talents with a series of TV spectaculars. One after the other, the British captives pay tribute to the kindness and compassion of their captors and apologise for “apparently” straying into Iranian territorial waters. (We may find over the next few days that the truth as to whether they did or not is not quite as straightforward as we’ve been led to believe.)

Once the holiday is over, the leadership take control, decide they’ve extracted maximum advantage, and President Ahmadinejad, who probably was not the key figure in their deliberations, is told he can take the international credit for ordering the captives’ release.

So what have we learned? One, that the Royal Navy top brass need to keep their eye on regional politics. If they thought they were operating in friendly waters, they weren’t paying attention. Two, that Iranian political leaders are subtle and sophisticated. They know how to play the Western media. And the politics of Iran are far more complex than the impression we’re often given. There’s much more to Tehran than bearded mullahs chanting Down with America.

The 15 sailors and marines are back home, their families and friends are greatly relieved. Not so, alas, the family and friends of our colleague Alan Johnston, the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza, who was kidnapped nearly four weeks ago and of whom we have heard nothing since the day he disappeared. There’s an online petition on the BBC News website calling for his release: if you’d like to add your name, click here.

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