When Iran's president explained that the release of the British prisoners is a gift to the British people on the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, he knew that he had missed the date by three days.
What is important, though, is not the holiday, but the way the decision was made and who affected it. It begins with the British decision to use diplomatic means and not flex its military muscles - a move linked to the previous British decision to withdraw 1,600 British soldiers serving in Iraq in the coming months. A military operation and concern for further deterioration would have blocked this, and another conference on Iraq is expected to take place soon, with the participation of foreign ministers from the U.S., Britain, Iran and Syria. Britain also understood that any military threat against Iran would bolster extremists such as Ahmadinejad and improve their position in the eyes of the public, which suspects its country is being persecuted.
Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey also participated in the diplomatic efforts that found fertile ground in Iran, some of whose leadership, including Ali Larijani and Hashemi Rafsanjani, are wary of the growing strength of the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Rahim Safavi, who is responsible for the arrest.
Beyond this, Iran understood the advantages of a diplomatic solution. If the arrest itself, which was carried out on the eve of a United Nations decision on sanctions, was meant to deliver the message that Iran is not afraid of sanctions and that it distinguishes between the nuclear issue with matters pertaining to its territorial sovereignty, the diplomatic solution is no less important. It will now be used by Iran as proof that even powers such as the U.S. and Britain are limited in their ability to use force when it comes to a minor border incident - and that the threat Iran poses is precisely in initiating local incidents that are not sufficiently important to lead to war.
In addition to this gain, Iran can also offer Syria its own gains, at a time when its foreign minister, Walid Muallem, is rushing to announce the role Damascus played in the British sailors' release. It is doubtful whether Syria influences Iran on regional issues, but when the U.S. House speaker is in Syria, delivering messages of peace between Israel and Syria, Tehran can give Damascus a bonus.
It is doubtful whether this incident would impact Iran's determination to develop nuclear capabilities, a project considered an inalienable part of national strategy and pride.
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