Ahmadinejad Calls U.K., Allies Arrogant
Saturday, March 31, 2007; 10:05 PM
TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's hardline president said Saturday that Britain and its allies were "arrogant and selfish" for not apologizing over what he called the incursion of 15 captured British sailors and marines into Iranian waters.
President Bush described the 15 Britons as "hostages" in his first comments on the capture and said their seizure was "inexcusable," calling for their release.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's most extensive comments on the crisis closely followed tough talk from other Iranian officials, an indication that Tehran's position could be hardening.
Britain, meanwhile, appeared to be easing its stance, emphasizing its desire to talk with Iran about what it termed a regrettable situation.
"We continue to express our willingness to engage in dialogue and discussions with Iran," Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said at a European Union summit in Bremen, Germany. I think everyone regrets that this position has arisen ... What we want is a way out of it."
Iran appeared unreceptive.
"Instead of apologizing over trespassing by British forces, the world arrogant powers issue statements and deliver speeches," the country's official news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
Tony Blair expressed disgust Friday that the captured service members had been "paraded and manipulated," in video footage released by Iran, and warned Tehran it faced increasing isolation if it did not free them.
Britain has frozen most contacts with Iran over the seizure of its citizens and referred the issue to the U.N. Security Council, which expressed "grave concern."
Tehran appears intent on sending a message of strength as it faces criticism over the crisis along with mounting U.N. sanctions over its uranium enrichment program, which the U.S. and other nations suspect is a cover for developing nuclear weapons.
The European Union demanded Friday that Iran immediately and unconditionally release the Britons and warned of unspecified "appropriate measures" if Tehran does not comply.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Saturday dismissed the EU's "biased and meddlesome" comments, saying the dispute solely involved the governments of Iran and Britain.
The British sailors were detained by Iranian naval units March 23 while patrolling for smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran. Britain insists that the service members were in Iraqi waters. Iran has been saying the Britons were in Iranian waters.
The British Foreign Office confirmed Saturday that it had replied to a letter received earlier in this week from the Iranian embassy. It declined to reveal the nature of either letter and said it would continue to conduct diplomatic discussions in private.
Moderate former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami told reporters on Saturday that he hopes the current standoff will be resolved peacefully "instead of facing a new disaster not only for Iranian-British relations, but for Iran internationally."
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Deb Riechmann at Camp David, Md. and Benjamin Harvey and Katarina Kratovac in Cairo, Egypt contributed to this report.