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Iran: Naval Incident Heightens Tensions With Britain

  • Breffni O'Rourke --> An Iranian coastal watchtower on the Shatt Al-Arab (file photo) (epa) March 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The seizure of 15 British Navy sailors by Iran is threatening to turn into a diplomatic incident after Iranian naval forces on March 23 took the sailors into custody, saying they were trespassing on Iranian waters.

Britain strenuously rejects this, saying the sailors were engaged on a routine antismuggling patrol in Iraqi waters. Prime Minister Tony Blair called Iran's seizure of the 15 sailors in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway "very serious," and he regards the Iranian action as "wrong and unjustified."

"I hope the Iranian government understand how fundamental an issue this is for us," Blair said. "We have certainly sent those messages back to them very, very clearly indeed. I hope that this can be resolved over the next few days, but the quicker it is resolved the easier it will be for all of us."

Iranian Charges

However, the Iranian government appears unwilling to simply hand back the 14 men and one woman. It says it is considering court action against them for illegal entry into Iranian territorial waters. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki claimed this is not the first such incident.

"The Iranian authorities intercepted these sailors and marines in Iranian waters and detained them in Iranian waters," Mottaki said. "This had happened in the past as well. And in terms of legal matters, we are looking into that and it's under investigation."

Britain has demanded immediate consular access to the detainees, and their swift release. However, the Iranians have taken them to an unknown destination and said that consular access "may" be granted at some later date.

The 'HMS Cornwall' in the Persian Gulf (epa file photo)

The British account of the incident is that the sailors were on a routine motorboat patrol in Iraqi waters, inspecting merchant shipping for smuggled goods, when their two launches were surrounded by armed Iranian naval units, and taken away. All are crewmembers of the British frigate "HMS Cornwall."

Bargaining Chips

The incident occurs at a time of high tension between the world powers and Iran over Tehran's refusal to obey a UN demand to abandon uranium enrichment. On March 24, the UN Security Council decided unanimously to impose new sanctions on Iran.

Iran has responded with continued defiance. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that not for "one second" will Iran stop its nuclear program. There are international fears that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, something that Tehran denies.

Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said that because of the new sanctions, Iran will limit its cooperation with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based body that monitors compliance with nonproliferation rules.

British commentators, notably "The Times" daily, have linked the gunpoint detention of the Britons to the overall deterioration in the situation, saying that the boarding party may have been deliberately ambushed so that they can be used as "hostages" in the broader game.

Professor Ali Nourizadeh, of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, agrees with that view. "I believe this was a deliberate, very well-planned operation which has taken place in the Shat Al-Arab; they dragged the British soldiers over to Iranian waters to arrest them. It was a well-planned operation by a special unit of the [elite] Revolutionary Guards' navy."

Nourizadeh says the aim of the mission was to capture a large number of British military personnel and to use them as bargaining chips for the return of Revolutionary Guards captured by U.S. forces in Iraq. The Americans have described the captive Iranians as agents; but Iran has called them diplomats.

Show Of Strength

Nourizadeh also outlines a secondary motive which he sees in play, based on the Iranian government's expectation that the UN Security Council would pass the new sanctions package, which it did do the following day.

"They [the Iranian authorities] wanted to show to the Iranian people that they are strong, they are in control, and, if necessary, they are willing to fight with the British, and say, 'Look what we did, in bringing all those [captured British] soldiers to Tehran,'" Nourizadeh says.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic contacts continue. Both the British and Iranian governments summoned diplomats from the other side on March 25, and British officials say the British ambassador in Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, was seeking another meeting today.

In the aftermath of the naval incident, the ISNA news agency quoted the commander of naval forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Morteza Saffari, as warning the United States against mounting any military attack on Iran.
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