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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 11th, 2007 - 02:15:54

Pity the poor sailors?
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 11, 2007, 02:13

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What a fiasco! In the saga of the sailors, truth takes a back seat. Were they in Iranian waters? When they were in Iran they admitted trespass. In Britain, they changed their stories. Now some of them have sold those stories to the highest bidder with the blessing of Britain�s Defense Department, which has now changed its mind and halted further sales while it reviews the rules.

During a press conference six of 15 freed sailors and Marines spoke of being coerced by Iranian officials to offer their services as propaganda tools.

Were they beaten or tortured? Were their families threatened? Were they subjected to stress positions, strobe lighting, and deafening music? Were they stripped naked, photographed and humiliated by an Iranian version of Lindy England?

Not at all! Apparently, they were initially lined up facing a wall before being handed pajamas, made to sleep on piles of blankets in small cells and given three meals a day, cigarettes and made-to-wear blindfolds during trips to the toilet.

Later, they were allowed to meet together for several hours each evening in full glare of the media. They said they agreed to sign confessions when they were told such documents represented the key to their freedom.

At the press conference broadcast around the world, they were portrayed as heroes who had come through a great ordeal with honor. They couldn�t find one good word for the Iranians. One sailor said they were not his favorite people. In fact, there was little honor to be found in all this.

There is no doubt as prisoners in a foreign land they were intimidated by circumstances and had to play ball with their captors to some extent for their own survival. They may, indeed, have suffered an ordeal but given the relaxed demeanor of most of them while �guests� of the Iranian government, suspicions that they may have exaggerated the ordeal for the benefit of the Western media may be well founded.

Put simply, for captives whose very lives were in peril, their smiles were too broad. Their body language spoke of people with little to fear as they chatted amongst themselves, tucked in to a meal or sat around playing chess.

Once the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had announced his magnanimous gesture of sending them home as an Easter gift to the British people, dressed in new suits, they were effusive with their thanks and handshakes and seemed delighted with their goody bags, stuffed with pistachios and souvenir vases.

As detainees go in today�s harsh climate, and in comparison with the way America treats its detainees, the Brits were treated exceptionally well. The jury is still out on whether or not they strayed into Iranian waters, but we do know that, prior to their arrest, one was interviewed by Sky News and he admitted that their duties included gathering intelligence on Iran. As self-declared spies, they could have fared a lot worse.

Admittedly it was unwise of Iran to ratchet up tensions in the Gulf at a time when an American armada is in the neighborhood and George W. Bush is said to be itching for a fight but morality is on Iran�s side for several reasons.

First, those waters are disputed. There are no absolutes as during the Iran-Iraq War Saddam Hussein tore up a treaty.

Second, Iranians have more right over those waters than Britons, whose government took their country into an illegal war with Iran�s neighbors on the basis of a pack of lies.

Third, five Iranian diplomats were snatched by the US from an Iranian mission in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil and until now have not been given consular access.

A sixth Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who was freed last week -- some believe in a quid pro quo -- after being seized in Iraq, said he had been tortured and interrogated by the CIA.

Another argument on this subject centers on the question of which side won -- Britain or Iran?

The more hawkish in Britain and the US say Britain was humiliated and condemn the servicemen and woman for giving out a lot more than name, rank and number. The word �traitors� was flashed on the Fox News� screen during one talk show.

Previously, Fox News� anchors had indulged in a veritable orgy of anti-Iranian spin by parading former American Embassy hostages who each told lurid tales of mock executions and beatings. In response to the video where British sailors were shown feasting, one said with absolute certainty that the food would be whipped away from their mouths as soon as the cameras were turned off. Someone should tell him it�s 2007 not post-revolution 1979. When it was all over one of the Fox and Friends teams couldn�t resist getting in a cheap shot at Iran by referring to Iran�s gift of �cheap suits.�

Others respect Prime Minister Tony Blair�s soft diplomacy that was packed with an underlying punch that resulted in a happy homecoming. They say it was a win for moderation. However, when speaking to the press shortly after the surprise release, Blair didn�t look like a winner. He has rarely appeared as grumpy and instead of thanking his Iranian counterpart he grasped the opportunity to accuse Iran of aiding the resistance in Iraq.

The 15 navy personnel didn�t look like winners either. They swapped their suits for uniforms on board the flight from Tehran to Heathrow and also exchanged their grins for serious, pained expressions no doubt in realization of the questions they would face from their superiors and also from a confused public as well as a critical press.

The bottom line is this. The British detainees are lucky. They may sell their stories for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

They will dine out on their adventures for the rest of their lives and now that the British media have opted to swallow the version of events as told in Britain, they will forever be perceived as heroic. In reality, they were compliant pawns, used both by Iran and by their own country to make a political point.

The fate of the Iranian diplomats presumably being held in a US hellhole on the lines of Abu Ghraib or Camp Cropper is less certain. They were legitimately in Iraq issuing visas to Iraqi Kurds and their diplomatic immunity has been grossly violated. But with all the brouhaha over the �poor Brits� does anyone care?

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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