By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007
CAMP DAVID, March 31 -- President Bush on Saturday condemned Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and marines as "inexcusable behavior" and demanded that the "hostages" be released, weighing in for the first time as the situation escalates into a sustained confrontation with Tehran.
Bush said the sailors had been operating legally in Iraqi territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, as the British have insisted, and not in Iranian waters, and he offered support for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's efforts "to resolve this peacefully." But he rejected any "quid pro quo" trade of Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq and ducked a question about whether military force would be justified to free the captured sailors.
"The Iranians must give back the hostages," the president told reporters at a brief question-and-answer session at Camp David after a meeting with the visiting Brazilian president. "They're innocent, they were doing nothing, and they were summarily plucked out of the water. As I say, it's inexcusable behavior."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his own first public comments on the standoff Saturday, accusing Britain of arrogance and complaining that it should not have "shouted in different international councils," according to Iranian state radio. "This is not the legal and logical way" to act, he said in Khuzestan, a province that borders the Persian Gulf.
The tough words suggested that both sides are digging in for a more prolonged standoff that may not be resolved easily. The sailors, 14 men and one woman, were returning from inspecting a cargo ship for possible smuggling when the Iranian navy seized them March 23. Since then, Tehran has released footage and letters that it says are confessions that the 15 entered Iranian waters. Britain has released satellite data to buttress its case that its personnel were in Iraqi waters.
The United States had tried to keep a low profile on the matter and deferred to Blair apparently out of a desire to avoid further inflaming tensions by inserting the fraught U.S.-Iranian relationship into the situation. But some U.S. and British officials believe the capture may have been a retaliation for the seizure of Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives by U.S. forces in Iraq or for the U.S.-led effort at the United Nations to sanction Iran for its nuclear program.
Bush pointedly chose tough language Saturday. After starting to describe the matter as "the Iranian issue," he quickly stopped and corrected himself to call it "the British hostage issue." In response to another question, he denounced Iran's defiance of U.N. demands that it halt its uranium-enrichment program. "It is in the world's interest that Iran not develop a [nuclear] weapon," he said. He would not say whether he would consider the seizure of U.S. sailors an act of war.
Iran appeared to take a step further by signaling that it might put the British on trial. Gholamreza Ansari, Tehran's ambassador to Moscow, told Russian television that legal proceedings have begun against the sailors and marines and that they could "face punishment" if found guilty of illegally being in Iranian waters, a statement that triggered concern at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Germany.
Blair's government appeared to be settling in for a long-term crisis but was still seeking a way to defuse it diplomatically, according to reports out of London. The Sunday Telegraph reported Saturday on its Web site that officials may send an envoy to Tehran who would not admit a violation of Iranian territory but would promise the Islamic government that Britain will never knowingly enter Iranian waters without permission, a formulation designed to secure the release of the captives while allowing both sides to save face.
Bush's comments came during a meeting with reporters alongside Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was visiting the presidential retreat here in the Catoctin Mountains. The meeting was Bush's second with Lula in just a few weeks, following the president's stop in Sao Paulo during a Latin American tour this month.
Bush, who uses his rare Camp David invitations to flatter foreign leaders with the impression of intimacy, has made Lula key to his strategy to counter the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and to expand the production of ethanol and other alternative fuels. Lula is the first Latin American leader brought to Camp David since 1998 and the first hosted for a "working visit" since 1991.
But Iran shadowed even their talks because of recent U.S. complaints about business ties between Petrobras, a major Brazilian energy company, and Tehran. Lula dismissed those grievances, noting that no international sanctions have been violated and calling the Iranians important trading partners. "We have no political divergence with them," Lula said.
Bush acknowledged that Brazil is not violating sanctions but offered a gentle rebuke. "We would hope that nations would be very careful in dealing with Iran," he said.
Lula also tested Bush's famed impatience with a rambling, 20-minute opening statement (compared with the president's own four-minute introduction) and lectured at length about what he called the looming crisis of global warming. "Please pay attention," Lula said as he rattled off disturbing indications of climate change. "Global warming is a reality that threatens us by land, air and water."
On domestic matters, Bush used the session to offer support to embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, whose veracity was called into question last week by his former chief of staff in connection with the firings of U.S. attorneys.
"Attorney General Gonzales is an honorable and honest man, and he has my full confidence," Bush said. When Gonzales goes to Capitol Hill, the president said, "he will testify in front of Congress, and he will tell the truth."
Gonzales's seemingly conflicting accounts of his role in the firings prompted a GOP lawmaker to call Saturday for his resignation. "I trusted him before, but I can't now," Rep. Lee Terry (Neb.) said, according to the Associated Press. Although he once thought the controversy was just a Democratic "witch hunt," Terry said, "my trust in him in that position has taken a hit because of these contradictory statements by him."
Bush also sparred with Democrats over legislation to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. The president said in his weekly radio address that it "would substitute the judgment of politicians in Washington for that of our military commanders" and "set an arbitrary deadline for surrender." And he mocked pork-barrel spending in the war funding bill, such as secure peanut storage. "I like peanuts as much as the next guy," Bush said, "but I believe the security of our troops should come before the security of our peanut crop."
For their response, Democrats tapped retired Marine Lt. Col. Andrew Horne, who served two tours in Iraq and lost a race for Congress in Kentucky last fall.
Horne said the legislation would set badly needed benchmarks for Iraqis: "If the president vetoes this bill because he doesn't want to formally demonstrate progress in Iraq, never in the history of war would there be a more blatant example of a commander in chief undermining the troops under his care."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.