Iranian state television said today that Tehran will prosecute the eight Royal Navy sailors, who were seized yesterday in the narrow Shatt-al-Arab waterway separating Iran and Iraq.
The announcement has angered British officials by suggesting the sailors may not be released immediately. Reuters quotes a British Foreign Office spokesman as saying, "We are trying to get the Iranians to explain exactly what they mean by that."
The British official continued: "They have got to come up with some answers to our questions, and we are pressing them for answers."
British Colonel Nick Mark, speaking today at a news conference in Al-Basrah, Iraq, expressed optimism that the matter will be settled: "This is now an issue between the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Iranian authorities, and we are confident that the issue will be resolved peacefully."
Iranian state media initially accused the seized crew members of spying on Iran when it announced their capture yesterday. Iran's Al-Alam television station, which broadcasts in Arabic to Iraq, characterized the seizure by saying, "Tehran has confirmed that they stopped three naval vessels that entered Iranian waters, and they arrested eight people on board. The Al-Alam correspondent has learned that the eight were from marine special forces, and on board they found weapons and spy cameras, plus detailed maps of areas within Iran and Iraq."
The detained vessels are four-meter-long inflatable boats of the kind used to patrol shallow waters and do not carry any armament.
Britain says the crew members -- who were carrying individual weapons -- were taking the boats from the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr up the waterway to Al-Basrah for delivery to the Iraqi Riverine Patrol Service.
Speaking to reporters in Al-Basrah yesterday, British Major Ian Clooney said: "They were doing a routine patrol, as has happened for many months now, as part of the support and training offered to both the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and the River Patrol Department. So there was nothing unusual in what they were doing."
British forces are helping equip the Iraqi police to patrol the Shatt Al-Arab, which is often used by smugglers to ship oil out of the country for sale elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region. The waterway is also reported to be used as an entry point into Iraq for militants.
British officials have not commented directly on Iran's charge that the vessels entered its waters. Britain's daily "The Guardian" quotes unidentified military sources as saying only that the river patrol vessels were plying the waterway in bad weather -- suggesting that they could have strayed off course.
Iranian officials have called the arrest in line with Iran's right to protect its borders.
A spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran's armed forces, said yesterday that vessels entering Iranian territorial waters are routinely seized for investigation. Massoud Jazaeri said: "Anyone from any nationality entering our waters will face the same response."
Earlier this month, Iran seized some eight fishing vessels from the United Arab Emirates after the Emirates detained the crew of an Iranian boat that had strayed into its waters.
Use of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway has historically been a point of friction between Iran and Iraq, with both countries jealously guarding their claims to use it and protecting against intrusions from the other side. Tension over navigational rights was one reason Iran and Iraq went to war in 1980.
The incident comes as relations between Tehran and London have been strained recently by a dispute over whether Iran is cooperating sufficiently in opening its nuclear program to international inspection.
Britain, France, and Germany authored the resolution adopted in mid-June by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that "deplored" Tehran's lack of full cooperation and called on it to end all activities connected with enriching or reprocessing uranium.
Uranium can be used as fuel in a peaceful energy program or to produce material for nuclear weapons.
Prior to the IAEA's action, Tehran had accused the three European states -- which have trade and diplomatic relations with Iran -- of collaborating with efforts by the United States to isolate it.
Washington accuses Iran of secretly trying to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Tehran says it is pursuing nuclear know-how exclusively for peaceful purposes.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday praised the IAEA resolution, saying it opens the way for considering stronger action if Iran fails to respond fully to concerns over its nuclear program.
"The international community is expecting [Iran] to answer its questions and to respond fully," Powell said. "In due course, we'll have a chance to examine their response, in September [at the IAEA's next board of governors meeting], and at that time judgments can be made as to what action might be appropriate."
London launched multiple initiatives today with Tehran to discuss the seizure of its eight sailors and to get them released.
A spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Tehran said diplomats today requested permission to visit the detained men.
At the same time, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw telephoned his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, to discuss the issue.
The Foreign Office declined to give reporters any details of the talks or to say whether any progress had been made toward freeing the sailors.