TEHRAN, Iran - Iran said
Monday it was questioning 15 British sailors and marines to determine if their
alleged entry into Iranian waters was "intentional or unintentional" before
deciding what to do with them - the first sign it could be seeking a way out of
The two countries continued to disagree about where the military personnel
were seized Friday, with Britain insisting they were in Iraqi waters after
searching a civilian cargo vessel and the Tehran regime saying it had proof they
were in Iranian territory.
Britain's Defense Ministry said they were seized in the Shatt al-Arab, a
waterway flowing into the Persian Gulf that marks the border between Iran and
Iraq. But the dividing line in the waterway, known in Iran as the Arvand river,
has long been disputed.
The Iranian emphasis Monday on the detainees' intent was a noticeable
pullback from the certainty expressed Saturday by Iran's military chief, Gen.
Ali Reza Afshar. Afshar said then that the 15 confessed to "aggression into the
Islamic Republic of Iran's waters."
Other Iranian officials suggested afterward that the Britons might be charged
with a crime - presumably espionage or trespassing - for knowingly
entering Iran's territorial waters.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mehzi Mostafavi took a softer line Monday while
saying that the 14 men and one woman were still being interrogated.
"It should become clear whether their entry was intentional or unintentional.
After that is clarified, the necessary decision will be made," Mostafavi said.
Iran has refused to say where the captured Britons were being held or to
allow British officials to speak with them, but assured the British ambassador
to Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, that they were in good health.
During an official visit to Turkey on Monday, British Foreign Secretary
Margaret Beckett called for Iran to allow access to the captives. "We will
continue to press the Iranian authorities until the incident has been resolved
with the safe return of our personnel and their equipment," she said.
In London, Iranian Ambassador Rasoul Movahedian was summoned to the British
Foreign Office for the third time since the standoff began. Lord Triesman,
Foreign Office undersecretary, again demanded the safe return of the detained
personnel, the Foreign Office said.
There were fears in Britain that the fate of the 15 could get caught up in
the political tensions between Tehran and the West, including the dispute over
Iran's nuclear program and accusations of Iranian help to Shiite militants in
In particular, there were worries Iran might seek to use the prisoners as
leverage in trying to get the U.S. to free at least five Iranians detained in
Iraq for allegedly being part of a Revolutionary Guard force that provides
funds, weapons and training to Iraqi Shiite militias.
Mostafavi denied Iran was seeking a trade, but there were calls from
elsewhere within Iran's leadership for the government to hold out for a swap.
A Web site run by Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Expediency Council and a
former Revolutionary Guard commander, quoted an unidentified lawmaker as saying,
"If Iranian diplomats in Iraq have no security, there's no reason why we should
forgive and turn a blind eye to aggressors into Iranian territories."
Some members of the Iranian public also called for the British sailors and
marines to be held and tried. Hundreds of Iranian students demonstrated near the
coast to urge a tough stand in the confrontation with the West.
British leaders sought to play down fears the situation could escalate or
become entangled with the other disputes.
"This is a matter that should be dealt with on its own merits ... and that is
how we are approaching it," British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said.
Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, told The Associated Press in a
telephone interview from Baghdad that there was no connection between the
capture of the British sailors and marines and other disputes between the West
"They entered Iranian territorial waters and were arrested," Qomi said. "It
has nothing to do with other issues."
A 1975 treaty between Iran and Iraq set their border as running down the
center of the Shatt al-Arab, but Saddam Hussein canceled the treaty before
invading Iran in 1980 and setting of a devastating war. Iran claims the border
runs along the deepest parts of the river.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabi said the
United Nations had not become involved in the current dispute. "This matter is
between the countries involved," she said.
Calls for the release of the Britons also came from the European Union, Iraq
and the United States, under whose command the military search team was serving
when it was captured.
On Monday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Iranian Foreign
Minister Manouchehr Mottaki that the personnel were seized in Iraqi waters and
said they should be released.
Meanwhile, Iranian state TV said Iran was open to negotiations over its
nuclear program despite its decision to partially cut cooperation with the U.N.
atomic watchdog agency in response to the U.N. Security Council's vote Saturday
to approve additional sanctions on Tehran.
"Iran looks at negotiations as the only solution to the nuclear case," it
The sanctions are meant to persuade Iran to suspend uranium enrichment as
demanded by the council and underline its growing international isolation. The
United States has warned of even tougher penalties if Tehran doesn't