Release of Britons shows diplomacy with Iran can work
Iran has released 15 British sailors and marines after 13 days of captivity.
DIPLOMACY combined with international pressure has resulted in Iran's release of 15 British sailors and marines after holding them for nearly two weeks. The outcome of such an incident would have been frightful if they had been American sailors, since the Bush administration has all but ruled out diplomacy with the terrorist-supportive state.
The crisis at first seemed reminiscent of the 1968 Pueblo crisis in which North Koreans seized a U.S. intelligence vessel and held its crew captive for nearly a year. After all, President Bush has called Iran and North Korea members of the "axis of evil," and both countries accused the foreign vessels of encroaching on their waters.
However, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pursued what he called a "dual track" strategy combining "new and interesting lines of communication" with the Iranian regime with international support and pressure. "In my view," he said, "it would be utterly naive to believe that our personnel would have been released unless both elements of the strategy had been present."
Similarly, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommended in December that the Bush administration use such a two-pronged approach in dealing with Iran and Syria. It called for the establishment of an Iraq International Support Group that "should actively engage Iran and Syria in its diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions.
"Diplomatic talks should be extensive and substantive, and they will require a balancing of interests," the Baker-Hamilton panel advised. "The United States has diplomatic, economic and military disincentives available in approaches to both Iran and Syria. However, the United States should also consider incentives to try to engage them constructively, much as it did successfully with Libya," which won U.S. acceptance by renouncing the use of weapons of mass destruction in 2004.
The Bush administration rejected the advice and in recent months has escalated its confrontational policy toward both Iran and Syria. That policy cannot be substituted by congressional intervention, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi learned this week in trying to play diplomat to the Middle East and getting slapped down for misconstruing dialogue from Syrian and Israeli leaders.
Fortunately, a glimmer of needed diplomacy by the administration might be emerging. American officials have agreed to review an informal request from the Iranian government for an envoy to visit five Iranians detained after an American raid in northern Iraq on Jan. 11.
Iranian officials have described the captives as diplomats. Iraq's foreign minister told the New York Times that, while not officially diplomats, they had been acting as liaisons between Iraq and Iran "with the approval of the (Kurdistan) regional government and with the knowledge of the Iraqi government. We were in the process of formalizing that liaison office into a consulate. Then they would have diplomatic immunity."
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