By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
LONDON, April 2 -- Iranian officials said Monday that all 15 British sailors and marines arrested March 23 have admitted to illegally entering Iranian waters, but the officials said they would not broadcast any further "confessions" on Iranian television due to positive "changes" in British attitude.
It was unclear what changes Iranian officials were referring to, but after a flurry of behind-the-scenes diplomatic discussions and an official exchange of letters, British officials noticeably toned down their rhetoric Monday over the seizure of the crew.
Western diplomats working on resolving the dispute have been focusing on getting Britain to publicly state that it will review its patrols of waters between Iran and Iraq and never breach Iranian boundaries in the future, several diplomats said. British officials say they will not apologize and insist that their marines and sailors were in Iraqi waters under a U.N. mandate and were seized in violation of international law.
But Prime Minister Tony Blair and top British officials said nothing publicly Monday about the standoff, and a government spokesman said Britain shares the goal of "bilateral discussions" to end the crisis. According to the ISNA news agency, Iranian officials broadcast new footage Monday of the British crew but said it would not air the 14 men and one woman "explaining details about their arrest in Iranian waters" because of "changes seen in the last two days in the clamorous British government policies.
"If this path continues, one can hope that the issue would be resolved in a bilateral process and far away from fuss and clamor and with achieving Iran's logical demands," the commentary on Iranian television said.
In another sign that a solution to the crisis might be edging closer, Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in an interview with Britain's Channel 4 News that Iran favored a diplomatic end to the dispute without a trial for the navy crew.
Though Iranians were "100 percent" sure of their case, "definitely our priority would not be trial," Larijani said. "Our priority is to solve the problem through proper diplomatic channels. We are not interested in having this issue get further complicated."
Chris Rundle, a former British diplomat in Tehran, characterized the day's developments as "slightly good news. They are not escalating the propaganda."
Rundle said hard-liners in Iran have gained by showing that "they are willing to take on the Lesser Satan," as some Iranians call Britain, in contrast to the United States as the "Great Satan." Perhaps the captives' usefulness is running out, Rundle said.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to give a news conference Tuesday in Tehran and many analysts in Britain expect him to signal how much longer the navy crew will be held.
"It will be good news if he doesn't ask for an apology," Rundle said. "Otherwise, this could go on endlessly."
Blair's spokesman told reporters that "a lot is going on behind the scenes." He criticized the "stage-managed TV appearances" of the British personnel.