Diplomacy, not demands

April 04, 2007

The recent purported confessions of 15 British sailors and marines that they trespassed in Iranian waters should be taken for what they appear to be - statements made under duress. Britain insists that they were traveling in Iraqi waters when they were detained March 23 by Iran. And even if the 15 veered off course, their capture conflicts with international law.

In any case, the appropriate way to settle this dispute is through measured diplomacy, not propaganda and threats.

London and Tehran may have finally realized that further escalation of the matter would box them into a diplomatic corner. The longer the British men and one woman are held, the more they resemble hostages, and the tougher it will be to win their release without political embarrassment. Iran has decided to stop parading the captives on television, a positive response to a more moderate tone expressed by British officials.

The Iraqi government, which is friendly to Iran, should intervene and try to resolve this matter.

But it's unlikely that the territorial dispute at the center of the standoff will be resolved to the satisfaction of either side. Britain says it has proof that its personnel were in Iraqi waters in the Persian Gulf, patrolling under a U.N. mandate. Its naval personnel were using a global positioning system, but GPS isn't infallible and the border between Iran and Iraq is sketchy. Iran says it has its own proof and wants a "clarification" from the British - but British media report that Tehran gave two locations for the sailors and marines, one inside its waters and one beyond.

The waterway dividing Iran and Iraq where the sailors were picked up has been a border in dispute since the 17th century, a disagreement that intensified during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Iranians know the waterway as the Arvand River; Iraqis call it the Arab coastline. A key Iraqi oil terminal is at the mouth of the 125-foot long channel. In 2004, Iran seized eight British naval personnel in the same area, but it released them within three days after they apologized on Iranian television.

Britain says it has nothing to apologize for and won't as a quid pro quo for Iran's release of its sailors. But it's time for the two sides to agree to disagree and move on. The 15 captives have been held too long. They should be returned home.

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