TEHRAN -- Diplomats struggled yesterday to resolve a standoff prompted by Iran's seizure of 15 British seamen in the volatile, oil-rich Persian Gulf as a vote neared on U.N. sanctions that would punish the Islamic Republic for its nuclear enrichment program.
The Royal Navy sailors and marines, traveling in high-speed inflatable rafts through the crowded waters off the Iranian and Iraqi coasts, had just finished inspecting an Iranian-flagged dhow for contraband yesterday morning when they were surrounded by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps gunboats, detained and taken to a nearby Iranian military base.
Iranian officials say the Britons were being held for violating Iranian territorial waters. But British and American military officials insisted that the Iranian gunships had crossed into Iraqi waters. In a brief communication with a passing British helicopter, Iranians said the 15 men were safe, a U.S. official said.
Officials in London summoned the Iranian ambassador, demanding the prompt return of the Britons and their boats. Officials in Tehran summoned the British charge d'affaires to accuse his nation's troops of violating Iran's territorial waters.
The incident highlighted the tensions between Iran and Western powers, particularly the United States and Britain. The two sides have faced off in Iraq and over Iran's nuclear energy program, which Western officials think is designed to produce a nuclear weapon. Iranians insist that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has issued a religious edict calling weapons of mass destruction un-Islamic.
The nuclear issue has heightened security worries in the crowded gulf, where Iranian, British and U.S. warships jostle for supremacy. Iranian boats frequently inspect Iraqi, Saudi and United Arab Emirates-flagged vessels. The U.S. and Britain, for their part, patrol the waters looking for possible smugglers. Recently, they have bolstered their presence in the Persian Gulf to support security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to confront Iran.
The Iranian decision to detain the British seamen could mark a significant escalation of the situation, although some analysts said that the action might not have been approved in advance by Iran's senior leadership. Ranking Iranian officials frequently take vacations and hand over duties to possibly less-qualified underlings during the Persian new year holidays.
"Our coalition forces have been up in those waters for years," said Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl, spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is moored in the gulf. "Both the Revolutionary Guard navy and the regular Iranian navy are well aware of us. For the Iranians to come over to Iraqi waters and apprehend these sailors is troubling."
Aandahl, speaking by phone from Bahrain, said British and American ships routinely inspect merchant vessels for contraband and secure Iraq's oil terminals from possible terrorist attacks under the mandate of Security Council Resolution 1723.
The standoff could be resolved quickly, said Jon B. Alterman, a former State Department official who is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I expect this to be resolved in days, not weeks," he said. "The Iranians really do not have an interest in escalating this very far."
Alterman dismissed suggestions that the seizure could be in retaliation for the alleged defection to the West of Iran's former deputy defense minister, and said it was unlikely to have been a response to U.S. detentions of Iranians in Iraq.
He said it is more likely that the sailors were seized by Revolutionary Guard units engaged in smuggling in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians might be trying to get the British to patrol less aggressively in the area, he said.
There have been other incidents in Shatt al Arab, the waterway that flows between Iran and Iraq, in part because it is hard to tell exactly where the border is.
"It is a little bit like the Mississippi Delta. The channels of the water are shifting," Alterman said. "It hasn't been dredged. You are constantly having sand bars pop up and shores move here and there. If there is a water boundary that can be murky, it is a waterway like the Shatt al Arab."
In yesterday's incident, two boatloads of sailors attached to the nearby HMS Cornwall had just finished a routine inspection of a dhow cargo boat suspected of carrying smuggled automobiles. "It was an entirely compliant boarding," Nick Lambert, commanding officer of the Cornwall, told the BBC, which had a news team aboard the frigate. "The skipper was quite content, he answered all the questions, and the leader of the boarding party cleared him to continue with his business."
The Cornwall then lost communications with the boats. They were apparently boarded by Iranian sailors in patrol boats that had surrounded them. A British helicopter spotted the boats being tugged up Shatt al Arab toward an Iranian base.
Aandahl said the British helicopter made contact with the Iranian patrol boats, which confirmed custody of the sailors in English but refused to elaborate.
"We know that there was no fighting, there was no engagement with weapons," Lambert told the BBC. "It was entirely peaceful, and we've been assured from the scant communications we have had with the Iranians at the tactical level that the 15 people are safely in their hands."
Iranian officials would not disclose where the 15 were being held, said Nader Daryaban, a correspondent in Tehran for the state-run daily newspaper Kayhan, speaking from the southwestern Iraqi town of Khoramshahr. "The Revolutionary Guards detained the 15 sailors while they were in Iranian water, not Iraqi," Daryaban said the officials told him.
Borzou Daragahi and Rahim Mostaghim write for the Los Angeles Times.