Iran Seizes 15 British Seamen

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By Mary Jordan and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 24, 2007

LONDON, March 23 -- Iranian naval forces seized at gunpoint 15 British sailors and marines who were on a "routine" mission inspecting merchant ships in Iraqi waters, British defense officials said Friday. The capture appears to be deliberate retaliation at a time when Tehran is under mounting pressure at the United Nations, from international financial institutions and even in Iraq, U.S. officials and Western diplomats said.

Iranian officials charged that the British Royal Navy personnel had illegally entered Iranian waters, Iranian state television reported Friday night. But British officials insisted that the eight sailors and seven marines were in Iraqi waters when they were seized in the Persian Gulf. They had just completed inspection of a merchant ship for possible smuggling when they were surrounded and escorted into Iranian waters, according to British officials.

The Royal Navy patrols Iraqi waters along with the U.S. Navy under the authority of the U.N. Security Council.

The seizure may have been a reprisal for the U.S. detention of five Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives during a January raid of the Iranian government's liaison office in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, the U.S. and Western officials said. The five, picked up as part of an intensifying U.S. effort to counter Iran's growing influence in Iraq, were members of the elite al-Quds Brigade that officials said has been deeply involved in arming and aiding Shiite militias in Iraq.

Iran has been demanding their release publicly and in private meetings, including at the first conference of Iraq's neighbors in Baghdad on March 10, a senior U.S. official said Friday. Two other al-Quds members had been picked up by the United States in Baghdad in December, but were released after a formal request by the Iraqi government.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard naval corps, which operates separately from Iran's navy, was involved in the detention of the British service members, U.S. officials said. Both incidents involved the Revolutionary Guards, the hard-line wing of Iran's multifaceted military and security services, U.S. officials noted.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, whose office summoned the Iranian ambassador in London on Friday to ask for immediate release of the service members, said the meeting was "brisk but polite." Beckett said Britain had left Iran "in no doubt that we expect the immediate and safe return of our personnel." Other Western capitals have also weighed in with Iran, and the incident was discussed Friday on the margins of U.N. talks on a new punitive resolution against Iran for failing to suspend uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy as well as a weapons program.

U.S. officials said they believe Iran's move was calculated to get something in return. "This was deliberate, no kidding. Anyone with six working brain cells understands that. The Iranians raced in and seized these guys and raced back," said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. "The Iranians are under significant worldwide pressure over their failure to comply with demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency and now the U.N. Security Council. The radicals are particularly under enormous pressure."

In 2004, eight British servicemen were held for three days after their boats strayed into Iranian waters. They were freed after being blindfolded, interrogated, and forced to read apologies on Iranian TV. Some of the sensitive British equipment from 2004 has not been returned, British officials say.

Friday's incident occurred near the Shatt al Arab, a waterway between Iraq and Iran that has long been a source of territorial disputes, which contributed to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

The sailors and marines, in two rigid inflatable boats, were returning to the HMS Cornwall when they were detained, British officials said. Commodore Nick Lambert, the commander of the Cornwall, told the BBC that he hoped the detention was the result of a "simple mistake" over the border between Iran and Iraq.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may claim they were in Iranian waters," Lambert said. "I hope we find this is a simple misunderstanding at the tactical level."

In Tehran, a top British official was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, according to a statement from Ibrahim Rahimpour, Iran's director general for Western European affairs. He said that this was not the first time British sailors had illegally entered Iranian waters and that the British Navy personnel "were arrested by border guards for investigation and questioning."

Wright reported from Washington.


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