By Mary Jordan and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 29, 2007
LONDON, March 28 -- Iran's foreign minister said Wednesday that in order to win the freedom of 15 navy personnel seized last week in the Persian Gulf, the British government must acknowledge that the team illegally entered Iranian waters.
Iranian television broadcast video footage of the sailors and marines on Wednesday, with the lone woman among them, dressed in Muslim garb, saying that the British boats had "trespassed" in Iranian waters.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair condemned the video as a "completely unacceptable" parading of the British detainees, who were seized by an Iranian Revolutionary Guards naval unit Friday.
The Iranian demand was made several hours after Blair told the House of Commons that Global Positioning System data put the British naval personnel 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when they were captured at gunpoint. Britain announced that it was freezing official ties with Iran, meaning it would grant no visas to Iranian diplomats and would suspend bilateral contacts with Tehran.
A senior Iranian official countercharged that British boats patrolling the Persian Gulf had strayed illegally into Iranian waters several times since the last incident in 2004, when eight British sailors were picked up and held for three days. The current episode marked an attempt to stop the British violations, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
There were conflicting signals Wednesday about the possible release of Faye Turney, the female captive. Senior Iranian officials initially said she would be freed within a couple of days. But Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that it might not happen that soon.
Later, in an interview with the Associated Press, Mottaki suggested that the standoff might end if Britain admitted that its navy team had strayed into Iranian waters by accident. "This can be solved," he said, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was attending an Arab summit. "But they have to show that it was a mistake. That will help us to end this issue."
The Iranian Embassy in London released a copy of a letter from Turney to her parents in which she said that the naval personnel had "apparently" strayed into Iranian waters and that she had written to Iranian officials apologizing. She said the navy team was getting three meals a day and being "well looked after." Turney, 26, who has a 3-year-old daughter, was pictured in the video wearing a checked black-and-white head scarf.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett expressed concern about whether the pictures indicated "pressure on or coercion of our personnel, who were carrying out a routine operation in accordance with international law."
Iran disputed Blair's assertions about location, saying the Britons were seized about a third of a mile inside Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, according to a statement issued by the Iranian Embassy and reported by the official IRNA news agency.
But the statement also suggested that Iran might be growing more amenable to settling the standoff. "We are confident that Iranian and British governments are capable of resolving this security case through their close contacts and cooperation," it said.
Blair, speaking in the House of Commons and giving his most detailed account yet of the incident, said Iranian authorities initially gave longitude and latitude coordinates supporting Britain's contention that the sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters. But when this was pointed out, Blair said, the Iranians "gave a new set of coordinates" that put the British team in Iranian waters.
Beckett told lawmakers that "even if the Iranian government mistakenly believed that our vessels had been in Iranian waters . . . the very most Iran would have been entitled to do . . . would have been to require the ship to leave their territorial waters immediately." She said the Iranians had made "no demands."
Many analysts have said they believe Iran seized the British troops in retaliation for the U.S. apprehension of five Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives in Iraq in January. Others have suggested that the incident is linked to U.N. sanctions against Iran because of its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program.
The tensions continued as the United States concluded the second of two days of naval exercises in the Gulf. The Bush administration said it was not looking for a confrontation with Tehran. However, President Bush spoke with Blair on Wednesday and said he "fully backs" Blair and the British position, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Wright reported from Washington.