Earlier this month, 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines were released. They had been seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while on patrol in Iraqi waters under a UN mandate and held for 14 days. It was a relief to all of us – above all for their families and colleagues, but also for the many in London and in our embassy in Tehran who worked tirelessly towards bringing them home.
The Government will draw lessons from those two weeks. But make no mistake. This was a victory for patient and determined diplomacy. We got our people out, we got them out unharmed, and we got them out relatively quickly. That was and has to be the measure of success. In going down this route we have shown that those who in the initial stages of the crisis confused diplomacy with weakness were wrong in their analysis and wrong in their advice.
By building support among our allies and Iran’s neighbours we put a consistent and ever tighter squeeze on the Iranian regime. In the end, its best option was to look for a quick way out from an unhappy situation of its own making.
Iran cannot give away what it had no right to hold
With their gloomy predictions about the failure of diplomacy proving misjudged, some commentators have turned to arguing that we have handed a victory of another kind – in world opinion – to the Iranian regime. Wrong again, I’m afraid.
No one was fooled for long by the circus performance laid on by the Iranians, from the staged and scripted confessions to President Ahmadinejad’s shameless exploitation of our personnel for the cameras. Their release was not a gift to the British people. Iran cannot give away that which it had no right to hold.
Take the time to look beneath the surface and it is clear that, in fact, the Iranian regime has done itself a great disservice. They hoped to turn this into some kind of nationalistic rallying call. But most Iranian citizens clearly wanted the crisis to be speedily resolved.
Western commentators can fall into the trap of underestimating the sophistication of the Iranian people. Iranians are no dupes: They are well aware of the problems that their government is facing in delivering on domestic promises of jobs and growth, and recognize the taking of our personnel as a possible diversionary tactic.
Iran has scored the same own goal across the region and throughout the international community. Countries in the region are already fed up with Iran’s interference in the affairs of others: In Iraq where Iranian elements want to destabilise the democratically-elected government; in Lebanon through its funding of Hizbullah – which has again set itself to bring down an elected government; and in its support for Palestinian rejectionist groups.
Now by illegally seizing our servicemen and then by denying any consular access, Iran has simply laid bare its contempt for international norms. For those who may have been beguiled by Iran’s justification for rejecting the authority of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) and the United Nations (UN) on the nuclear issue, this latest reckless act should raise fresh doubt.
Don't confuse diplomacy with weakness
Iran is already feeling the heat of international consensus on its nuclear ambitions. Irresponsible antics on the international stage will only increase that. Iran is now facing a 60-day deadline to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which reiterates the Security Council’s requirement for Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities.
At the heart of that requirement is the anxiety about Iran’s uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, secretly developed (as they now admit) for nearly 20 years and where questions put to them patiently and meticulously by the IAEA director general for the past four years still remain unanswered.
As with the recent crisis over our personnel, we are committed to taking the diplomatic route over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We have and will continue to apply consistent, determined and graduated pressure on Iran to comply with the UN. At the same time we will keep holding out the attractive package on offer if Iran is prepared to comply with its international obligations by suspending its enrichment-related, reprocessing and heavy water related activities.
We have maintained cohesion among the international community, including an impressive unanimity in the Security Council, when our critics
The international community is applying relentless pressure. It comes from a strength of consensus that the Iranians have consistently underestimated. That international cohesion is the best weapon in our armoury and it will only stick if we maintain our patient and determined approach. But, again, no-one – above all the Iranian regime itself – should confuse that commitment to diplomacy with weakness.
The writer is the UK foreign secretary