Diplomats struggled Friday to resolve a standoff prompted by Iran’s seizure of 15 British sailors and marines in the volatile, oil-rich Persian Gulf as a vote neared on U.N. sanctions that would punish the Islamic Republic for its nuclear enrichment program.
The Royal Navy personnel, traveling in high-speed inflatable rafts through the crowded waters off the Iranian and Iraqi coasts, had just inspected an Iranian-flagged dhow for contraband Friday morning when they were surrounded by Islamic Revolutionary Guard gunboats, detained and taken to a nearby Iranian military base.
Iran said the Britons were being held for violating its territorial waters. British and American military officials insisted that the Iranian gunships had crossed into Iraqi waters.
In a brief communication with a passing British helicopter, Iranians said the 15 men were safe, a U.S. official said.
Officials in London summoned Iran’s ambassador, demanding the prompt return of the men and boats. Their counterparts in Tehran summoned the British charge d’affaires to accuse his nation’s troops of violating Iranian waters.
The incident highlighted the tensions between Iran and Western powers, particularly the United States and Britain. The two sides have faced off over Iraq and Iran’s nuclear energy program, which Western officials believe is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon. Iranians say the program is for peaceful purposes only.
The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in December and is considering further measures that might ban arms sales and freeze the assets of more than two dozen people and institutions associated with the program.
The nuclear issue has heightened security worries in the gulf, where Iranian, British and U.S. warships jostle for supremacy. Iranian boats frequently inspect Iraqi, Saudi and United Arab Emirates-flagged vessels.
The U.S. and Britain patrol the waters looking for smugglers. Recently, they have bolstered their presence to support security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to confront Iran.
Who gave the order?
Iran’s decision to detain the Britons could mark a significant escalation of tensions, although some analysts noted that it might not have had the advance approval of Iran’s senior leadership. Ranking Iranian officials frequently hand over duties to subordinates during the country’s New Year holidays.
“Our coalition forces have been up in those waters for years,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl, spokesman for the 5th Fleet, which is moored in the gulf. “Both the Revolutionary Guard navy and the regular Iranian navy are well aware of us. For the Iranians to come over to Iraqi waters and apprehend these sailors is troubling.”
Aandahl, speaking by phone from Bahrain, said British and American ships routinely inspect merchant vessels for contraband and secure Iraq’s oil terminals from possible terrorist attacks under a U.N. mandate.
The standoff could be resolved quickly, said Jon B. Alterman, a former State Department official who is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I expect this to be resolved in days, not weeks,” he said. “The Iranians really do not have an interest in escalating this very far.”
Alterman dismissed suggestions that the seizure could be in retaliation for the alleged defection to the West of Iran’s former deputy defense minister. Nor was it likely to have been in response to U.S. detentions of Iranians in Iraq, he said.
It is more likely that the Britons were detained by Revolutionary Guard units engaged in smuggling in the Persian Gulf, Alterman said. The Iranians may be trying to get the British to patrol less aggressively in the area, he said.
Other incidents have occurred in the Shatt al Arab, the waterway that flows between Iran and Iraq, in part because it is difficult to tell exactly where the border is.
“It is a little bit like the Mississippi Delta. The channels of the water are shifting,” Alterman said. “It hasn’t been dredged. You are constantly having sandbars pop up and shores move here and there. If there is a water boundary that can be murky, it is a waterway like the Shatt al Arab.”
In Friday’s incident, two boatloads of personnel attached to the Royal Navy frigate Cornwall had just finished a routine inspection of a cargo boat suspected of carrying smuggled autos.
“It was an entirely compliant boarding,” Nick Lambert, commanding officer of the Cornwall, told the BBC, which had a news team aboard the frigate. “The skipper was quite content, he answered all the questions, and the leader of the boarding party cleared him to continue with his business.”
The Cornwall then lost communication with the boats. They were apparently boarded by Iranian sailors in patrol boats that had surrounded them. A British helicopter spotted the boats being tugged up the Shatt al Arab toward an Iranian base.
Aandahl said the helicopter made contact with the Iranian boats, which confirmed custody of the sailors in English but refused to elaborate.
“We know that there was no fighting, there was no engagement with weapons,” Lambert told the BBC.
“It was entirely peaceful, and we’ve been assured from the scant communications we have had with the Iranians at the tactical level that the 15 people are safely in their hands.”
Iranian officials would not disclose where the 15 were being held, said Nader Daryaban, a correspondent in Tehran for the state-run daily newspaper Kayhan, speaking from the southwestern Iraqi town of Khorramshahr.
“The Revolutionary Guard detained the 15 sailors while they were in Iranian water, not Iraqi,” Daryaban said the officials told him. “It is not the first time that the British transgress our waters and inspect Iranian ships.”
In London, reaction was immediate.
“We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Iran’s ambassador to Britain made no comment after leaving what British diplomats described as a “brisk but cordial” half-hour meeting.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told the BBC that there was “absolutely no doubt” that the ships were in Iraqi waters but that “the extent and definition of territorial waters is very complicated.”
British and American officials appeared inclined to play down the incident.
Iran seized eight British sailors in a 2004 incident but released them within days. The boats were not returned.
Aandahl said the British forces showed admirable restraint.
“They could have escalated this matter,” he said. “A bad situation could have gotten worse.”
Daragahi is a Times staff writer and Mostaghim a special correspondent. Staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.