Britain Ready To Send Team To Iran for Negotiations

By Kevin Sullivan and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

LONDON, April 3 -- Britain urged direct talks with Iran, is willing to send a "technical delegation" to help ease the 12-day crisis over 15 British navy personnel detained in Iran, and is waiting for clarification from Tehran on the purpose and substance of such talks, according to sources familiar with the back-channel diplomacy.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's office late Tuesday announced additional contacts between the two countries. "The UK has proposed direct bilateral discussions and awaits an Iranian response on when these can begin," the office said in a statement reported by the Associated Press. "Both sides share a desire for an early resolution to this issue through direct talks."

A British mission to Tehran would be conducting the highest-level direct talks between the two countries since the crisis began.

British officials cautioned against expectations that face-to-face discussions would ensure resolution of the incident sparked when 15 sailors and marines were captured in the Persian Gulf on March 23.

Blair had said earlier Tuesday that negotiations were at a "very critical" moment, while a top Iranian official said he "hoped that the matter would be resolved soon," according to Iranian news reports.

"If they want to resolve this in a diplomatic way, the door is open," Blair told reporters about a crisis that has sharply raised tensions between Tehran and the West. "If that's not possible, then we have to take increasingly tougher decisions."

In Tehran, the IRNA news agency reported that First Vice President Parviz Davoudi said Tuesday that Britain should admit that its forces had illegally entered Iranian waters -- which Britain strongly disputes -- and guarantee that they would not do so again. But Davoudi also said Britain had "changed its behavior in recent days," apparently referring to a more conciliatory tone adopted by British officials, and he said "the ground is well-prepared to end the crisis through diplomatic means," the news agency reported.

As Iran released new pictures of the 15 captives Tuesday, sources familiar with the continuing diplomacy said that the small British technical team would possibly be from the Defense Ministry and Foreign Office. It would go to Tehran for talks, an idea first floated by Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani.

The statement Tuesday from Blair's office did not specify whether the additional contacts with Larijani or other officials in Tehran were by phone. A British official said the delegation would not be "a magic bullet" but simply part of the "ongoing diplomatic process."

The Blair government is concerned about often-conflicting signals from Iranian leaders -- and about which ones to believe. British officials are also debating how much to trust Iran's interest in resolving the crisis, given its continuing refusal to grant British consular officials access to the captives.

Diplomatic efforts came amid developments involving Iranians held in Iraq, which U.S., British and Iraqi officials all insist are unrelated to negotiations on the captive Britons. The timing is totally coincidental, they say.

In Baghdad, an Iranian diplomat abducted from his car on Feb. 4, reportedly by men in Iraqi military uniforms, was freed. Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at Iran's embassy in Iraq, had disappeared in what Tehran called a U.S.-backed plot. Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, denied any U.S. or Iraqi military connection to the disappearance. Labeed M. Abbawi, Iraq's deputy foreign minister, said Sharafi had been held by "some military groups" but did not know where he was held or the circumstances of his release.

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