Britain, Iran stiffen positions on sailors

Both sides broaden attacks in dispute over seizure of 15

March 30, 2007|By Kim Murphy and Ramin Mostaghim | Kim Murphy and Ramin Mostaghim,LOS ANGELES TIMES

London -- Britain and Iran hardened their positions yesterday in their dispute over 15 British sailors captured in Persian Gulf waters that maritime experts say remain among the most disputed geographical boundaries in the world.

Both nations broadened their attack, with Britain winning a statement of "grave concern" over the detention from the United Nations Security Council, and Iran releasing a new letter from Leading Seaman Faye Turney that injected the issue of the war in neighboring Iraq.

"Isn't it time for us to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?" said the letter, addressed to Britain's Parliament.

Tehran displayed charts and satellite readings on state television purporting to show that the small British rafts, which had been patrolling in the Persian Gulf, near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, had crossed into Iranian territory six times.

"We intend to find out the reason for their illegal entry into Iranian territorial waters," said Ali Larijani, Iran's national security council chief and its top nuclear negotiator.

Larijani said any British attempts to pursue the case through "media propaganda and political hue and cry" would cause delays in Iran's original plan for an early release of Turney, the only woman being held.

Britain insists the boats were 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when they were confronted by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but is still attempting to resolve the conflict through diplomatic channels.

"What you have to do when you are engaged with people like the Iranian regime, you have to keep explaining to them, very patiently, what it is necessary to do, and at the same time, make them fully aware there are further measures that will be taken if they're not prepared to be reasonable," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told ITV News.

"The sooner the Iranian government realizes that there is no option that is open to them other than to release them, the better," he said.

Britain, which Wednesday froze all diplomatic contact with Tehran on all but the sailors' case, had hoped to add the weight of the Security Council to its demand for the sailors' release. But after an all-day debate, the statement that emerged failed to "deplore" the detention or call for an immediate release of the captives. Instead, the council expressed "grave concern" at the capture and detention of the British sailors, and appealed to Tehran to allow consular access.

Russia and others objected to the word "deplore" and the assertion that the British ship was in Iraqi waters, and insisted on an "early resolution" instead of an "immediate release" of the sailors.

Iran's mission issued a statement criticizing Britain for involving the Security Council in what it considers a bilateral issue. It called the effort "unacceptable, unwarranted and unjustifiable." It also said that "Iran abides by its moral and legal commitments as regard the treatment of the detainees. All detained British marines and sailors are safe, well and in good health."

Although British officials insist there is no uncertainty over either the British boat's position or that of the border, maritime experts say there is a long history of contention and uncertainty over territorial control in the northern Persian Gulf.

The waters are subject to widely agreed international understandings but have never been subject to a treaty between Iran and Iraq, maritime experts say.

"I'm afraid to say there is no line at all. What these people are talking about is an imaginary thing," said Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, an Iranian professor of geopolitics, now living in London, who has studied the Shatt al-Arab and its environs for the past 40 years.

"Neither side is at fault. The situation is such that anybody can make a mistake," he said.

Craig Murray, who led the maritime section of the British Foreign Office between 1989 and 1992, but later fell out with the government and quit the Foreign Office, posted an allegation on his Web blog that the boundary on the map British officials are using as a defense is "a fake with no legal force," since the actual border has never been agreed on.

"Accepting the British coordinates for the position of both [the monitoring ship] HMS Cornwall and the incident, both were closer to Iranian land than Iraqi land," he wrote.

Iran presented its own navigational chart on state television yesterday and declared that British sailors had entered its waters at six different points before they were arrested.

Kim Murphy and Ramin Mostaghim write for the Los Angeles Times.

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