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Britain freezes official ties with Iran

Special to the Times

Britain on Wednesday froze all government contacts with Iran as the Islamic Republic came under mounting international and domestic pressure to release 15 British sailors and marines captured in the northern Persian Gulf.

British officials released detailed maps and coordinates they said proved that the detained navy and marine personnel were operating 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi territorial waters, and announced that they would have no ties with Iran except for talks to win the captives’ release.

Iran said Wednesday the detainees were arrested 0.3 miles inside Iranian waters, underscoring what some experts say is the uncertain nature of the boundary that is at the heart of the dispute.

Iranian officials signaled at one point that the sole female sailor among the captives, who looked drawn and tense in images shown on Iranian television, may be released soon. But later in the day, Iran’s foreign minister appeared to pull back from that position.

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“We are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity,” British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament. “We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until this situation is resolved.”

The freeze will include diplomatic contacts, trade missions and the issuance of visas to Iranian government officials, the Foreign Office said.

Outrage over footage

The action came as Iranian TV broadcast footage of the captives, including Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, who told an off-camera interviewer that she and her colleagues had trespassed into Iranian waters.

“I am so sorry we did, because I know we wouldn’t be here now if we hadn’t,” Turney said in a handwritten letter to her family that was also shown on the broadcast. “I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologize for us entering into their waters. Please don’t worry about me, I am staying strong.”

The British government immediately protested, calling it “completely unacceptable” for footage of the detained sailors and marines to be shown on television.

“Given the nature of Leading Seaman Faye Turney’s statement, in particular the apparent confession that the personnel were ‘arrested after they trespassed into Iranian waters,’ we have grave concerns as to the circumstances under which she made this statement,” the Foreign Office said in a statement after the broadcast.

The Iranian government, already isolated economically and diplomatically over its nuclear program, has come under increasing domestic pressure to end the standoff.

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Opposition figures in Tehran spoke out against the hard-line government.

“The capture of the 15 British sailors was a blunder from the very beginning and the continuation of it is a mistake as well,” said Rajabali Mazrouie, a former lawmaker and journalist for the daily newspaper Sarmayie in Tehran.

He and others criticized the government for pursuing a risky policy of brinksmanship based on miscalculations about U.S. and British capabilities.

But hard-liners continued to press their case. Conservative students near the southern border town of Shalamcheh demonstrated for a second day, burning an effigy of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and demanding that authorities put the British detainees on trial.

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Iran’s state-run Arabic language Alalam TV aired images of the detainees, who are first seen in a small inflatable raft in footage apparently shot during the boat seizure, and then cut to them dining. Turney was then shown wearing a black head scarf and smoking a cigarette, red-faced and apparently nervous.

“I am being well looked after. I am fed three meals a day and have a constant supply of fluids,” she said in her letter, which was later released by the Iranian Embassy in London. “The people are friendly and hospitable, very compassionate and warm,” she wrote.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini told The Times that Turney would be handed over to the British Embassy in Tehran “within one or two days, God willing.” But Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Associated Press in an interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that the prisoners would not be released until Britain admitted they had entered Iranian waters.

“First they have to admit that they have made a mistake,” Mottaki said. “Admitting the mistake will facilitate a solution to the problem.”

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The Iranian Embassy in London released a statement apparently seeking to cool the dispute that has sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a serious confrontation. It emphasized that the incident was not related to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, or the recent vote by the United Nations Security Council imposing more sanctions against Iran.

“We are of this belief that this legal and technical issue has no link to any other issues and unfounded speculations and excited rhetorics can be counterproductive,” the statement said.

“At this stage, the investigation is being continued, and all British marines and sailors are in good heath and condition, and they enjoy welfare and Iranian hospitality,” it continued. “We understand the anxiety of their families, but they must be assured that they are in safe hands, and have a better life than the risky mission in the Persian Gulf waters.”

War games in the Gulf

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Meanwhile, not far from where the seized British boat was patrolling, the U.S. Navy was conducting its largest show of force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The war games involved more than 100 planes and two aircraft carriers.

In an attempt to boost its case, the British government released the first detailed account of the incident, including the global positioning system coordinates it said proved that the British navy vessel did not enter Iranian waters.

British Vice Adm. Charles Style, deputy chief of the defense staff, said the small, inflatable British patrol vessel was conducting a routine boarding of an Indian-flagged merchant vessel 7.5 nautical miles southeast of Iraq’s Al Faw peninsula. Style said the master of the cargo vessel confirmed it was anchored in that location, inside Iraqi territorial waters.

Iran, Style said, has offered British diplomats two different accounts of the seizure. On Saturday, he said, Iran provided a set of coordinates for the incident, which British diplomats pointed out were within Iraqi territorial waters. Two days later, he said, Iran gave out a second set of coordinates 1,800 yards away, inside Iranian waters, and more than two nautical miles from where Britain believes the incident occurred.

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“As I made clear to Foreign Minister Mottaki when I spoke to him yesterday, we find it impossible to believe, given the seriousness of the incident, that the Iranians could have made such a mistake with the original coordinates, which, after all, they gave us over several days,” Foreign Secretary Beckett said.

Responding to British lawmakers’ complaints that diplomats have had no access to the detainees, nor any indication of where they are being held, Beckett said, “It is a constant source of astonishment to me that it seems not to dawn on some of the authorities in Iran that behaving in that manner increases rather than diminishes people’s concern about how they would behave if they had a nuclear weapon.”

A British expert on boundary issues around the Shatt al Arab waterway, which ends north of where the vessel was detained, said it was probable but not certain that the boat was in Iraqi waters.

Richard Schofield, lecturer in geography at London’s King’s College who is writing a book on the international boundary issues in the region, said that although the Shatt al Arab border was the subject of a treaty between Iran and Iraq in 1975, the demarcation farther out to sea, where the vessel was operating, has never been formally agreed on.

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“We can say it’s probably Iraqi territory, but there’s no boundary there. So there’s a tiny bit of murkiness there,” Schofield said in an interview.

Some in Iran criticized the response as overkill, even if the British vessel had entered Iran’s territorial waters.

“As we are in a Middle East with chronic crises, the sailors should be released and tensions should be defused before it gets to a dangerous phase,” said Syed Abdul-Fazel Mossavian, a cleric in the Iranian city of Qom and a confidante to former reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Murphy reported from London and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.

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Begin text of infobox

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‘I am staying strong’

Text of a letter purportedly written by captured British sailor Faye Turney, as provided by the Iranian Embassy in London.

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Dear Mum & Dad,

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I am writing to you from Iran where I am being held. I will try to explain to you the best what has happened. We were out in the boats when we were arrested by Iranian forces as we had apparently gone into Iranian waters. I wish we hadn’t because then I’d be home with you all right now. I am so sorry we did, because I know we wouldn’t be here now if we hadn’t. I want you all to know that I am well and safe. I am being well looked after. I am fed three meals a day and have a constant supply of fluids.

The people are friendly and hospitable, very compassionate and warm. I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologize for us entering into their waters. Please don’t worry about me, I am staying strong. Hopefully it won’t be long until I am home to get ready for Molly’s birthday party with a present from the Iranian people.

Look after everyone for me, especially Adam and Molly.

I love you all more than you will ever know.

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All my love,

Faye

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Source: Associated Press

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