Pope Benedict XVI intervened to help gain the release of 15 British sailors captured by Iran three years ago, according to a confidential briefing prepared for US President Barack Obama.
This unexpected picture of the links between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and religious fundamentalists in Tehran comes from a “scene setter” for Obama’s then-forthcoming visit to Rome, compiled in June last year by Julieta Noyes, US deputy chief of mission to the Vatican.
Noyes adds circumspectly that: “It is unclear how much clout the Vatican really has with Iran.” Nevertheless she tells Obama in plain terms that: “The Vatican helped secure the release of British sailors detained in Iranian waters in April 2007.”
British diplomats in London are privately disinclined to give the pope as much credit as is being claimed. They say he did issue a message, but was not necessarily key to the release.
The cables reveal several rival contenders for British gratitude. Diplomatic pressure is charted from many directions, which eventually got the sailors out.
A Dubai businessman saw the seizure as a deliberate attempt to push the West into greater conflict. He also believed the Iranians sought out British sailors, as a less risky stand-in for Americans, fearing a harsher reaction from the US.
“The idea that hardliners in Iran are seeking greater tensions to silence critics, unite the population and divert attention away from economic and civil society concerns has been reported ... by other contacts,” US diplomats said. “It certainly appears Iran is using its seizure of the British sailors to prove its ‘toughness,’ after facing repeated ‘humiliations’ on the international political front.”
A Bruneian official said the Iranians could have been reacting to UN sanctions.
He “believed that it may have been done for domestic reasons, in order to help [Iranian] President Ahmadinejad divert Iranian attention away from the bad news.”
Iraq lobbied the Iranians immediately after the seizure in disputed Iran-Iraq waters and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said they made two or three approaches, without success. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani also wrote in vain to Iran.
But key help was apparently given by Britain’s friends in Oman. The British ambassador, Noel Guckian, “expressed great satisfaction” that Oman’s foreign minister had called Iran frequently urging the sailors’ release, which came in April.
The UK ambassador wrote: “The Omanis had been very supportive throughout the crisis and [Guckian] even credited them in some part for the successful outcome.” It was an occasion, he concluded, when Oman’s “positive but non-substantive” relationship with Tehran actually proved useful.
An Omani general said they had a “special relationship” with Iran.
“The Omanis had engaged in low-key discussions with the Iranians to urge them to take a conciliatory approach to the problem. The Iranians had permitted Oman’s ambassador to visit the captive British personnel,” he said,
One reformist member of the Iranian majlis (parliament) later told US diplomats in Dubai that the whole crisis was “simply a political stunt.”