A diplomatic standoff between Britain and Iran over the capture last week of 15 British sailors and marines threatened to escalate Tuesday as an intense new round of diplomacy failed to end the crisis.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that his government was prepared to move to “a different phase” if Iran did not quickly release the 14 men and one woman being held since Friday for allegedly entering Iranian waters.
But in Tehran, officials suggested that a speedy resolution could be difficult.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said British consular officials in Tehran would get access to the detainees only after a preliminary investigation determined whether the troops had entered Iranian territory on purpose or by mistake.
In Guard’s hands
One ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Britons were being held by conservative elements of the Revolutionary Guard, a parallel military organization born of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and were outside the normal channels of government. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is put aside and the case is only in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard,” he said.
A Western diplomat said ministry officials did not know the exact whereabouts of the detainees.
A group of conservative students held a mock trial of the 15 sailors and marines Tuesday in the southern border town of Shalamcheh and, amid chants denouncing Britain, the U.S. and Israel, called on the government to put the “aggressors” on trial.
Mohammed Javad Ali Akbari, one of Iran’s vice presidents, attended the event, according to the ISNA news service.
“Why on Earth should we forgive the British transgressors,” said Rafat Bayat, a hard-line member of Iran’s parliament. “Can anybody believe that the British naval forces got lost?”
In London, officials continued to insist that their troops had been in Iraqi waters. “There is absolutely no justification for holding” the personnel, Blair said. “I hope we manage to get [the Iranians] to realize that they have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase.”
Blair did not define what he meant, but a government spokesman who requested anonymity said the British leader was not referring to military action or an expulsion of diplomats. He said British officials were considering moving from quiet diplomacy to a more public confrontation, such as releasing evidence they believe proves that the two small British patrol boats captured in the Persian Gulf were operating in Iraqi waters.
“Patience is now wearing thin,” the spokesman said. “We’ve had four days now since British servicemen who were doing nothing wrong have been lifted, and we still don’t have any idea where they are.”
Iranian officials brushed aside Blair’s threat.
“Tony Blair used such empty rhetoric several times,” said Rashid Jalali, a lawmaker who serves on the National Security Committee. “We do not care what British officials say.”
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett cut short a visit to Turkey late Tuesday to return to London and was scheduled to address Parliament today. The government convened its Cabinet-level emergency-response committee, known as Cobra, under the chairmanship of the defense minister.
Iran’s ambassador to London has been summoned to the Foreign Office three times since the arrests, and Beckett has lodged a personal appeal with her Iranian counterpart for information on the detainees’ whereabouts. British officials have sought permission for a consular visit to the detainees.
Hosseini, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the detainees were in good condition. The lone woman, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, is having her privacy protected, he said.
Over the weekend, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program. Many in Iran say they feel the country is besieged and should remain resilient.
“It is highly significant that at a time when Iran is under pressure by the West, the British government demonstrates a hostile attitude toward Iran,” said Hamid Reza Haji Babaie, a conservative member of parliament. “Therefore, we should take care and verify the motives of the intruders to our waters.”
Iran is likely to be especially sensitive about border incursions now because of recent bombings along its borders it believes were fomented in part by the U.S. and Britain, said Dan Plesch, an Iran expert at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.
“There appears to be a low-level border war going on between Iran and the coalition [in Iraq], if you look at the border from Kurdistan to Basra,” Plesch said in an interview. “The existence of this largely proxy border war is a very important and unnoticed part of the relations between the Iranians and the international community.”
Public outcry growing
The British government had tried to play down the incident, hoping that diplomacy would bring the detainees’ release. But as diplomatic efforts drag on, there are increasing public demands for answers in London.
Liberal Democratic Party leader Menzies Campbell this week warned that Britain “will not be blackmailed” by Iran. In the House of Commons, Conservative Party lawmaker Ann Winterton questioned the rules of engagement that apparently barred British sailors from opening fire when surrounded by the Iranian boats.
“Did not the current rules of engagement that allow no conflict in Iraqi waters with Iranian forces lead directly to 15 of our service personnel being abducted by the Iranians?” she asked Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister.
“Those carrying out that mission clearly have to respond to the level of threat that is posed to them,” Ingram responded. “We will have to investigate that when they are safely returned to these shores and we get their version of events, rather than the speculation that is being paraded around in the media and elsewhere.”
Times staff writer Murphy reported from London and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.