Daily Telegraph: A diplomatic crisis between London and Teheran erupted yesterday after 15 British sailors and Royal Marines carrying out a search of a cargo ship in the Gulf were seized at gunpoint by Iranian forces. The Daily Telegraph
By Tim Butcher, Middle East Correspondent
A diplomatic crisis between London and Teheran erupted yesterday after 15 British sailors and Royal Marines carrying out a search of a cargo ship in the Gulf were seized at gunpoint by Iranian forces.
The boarding party gave itself up without firing a shot after a much more powerful Iranian force, believed to comprise at least two heavily armed, fast patrol boats, swooped near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway.
Britain, which insisted its forces were operating legally in Iraqi territorial waters, launched a swift diplomatic counter attack, summoning the Iranian ambassador in London, Rasoul Movahedian, to the Foreign Office.
“He was left in no doubt that we want them back,” said Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, referring to the missing servicemen.
“We sought a full explanation of what happened and left the Iranian authorities in no doubt that we expect immediate and safe return of our service personnel and boats.”
An unconfirmed report said the British chargé d’affaires in Teheran, Kate Adams, was later summoned to the Iranian foreign ministry.
“The Iranian foreign ministry has seriously objected following the illegal entry of British naval military forces into our country’s waters,” state television reported last night, adding that border guards were holding the Britons for further investigation.
America gave its backing to Britain but with no word about the whereabouts of the missing Britons or their weapons, boats and equipment, the stage was set for a potentially drawn-out confrontation with Iran.
The incident echoed a similar one in July 2004 when six Royal Marines and two sailors were held by Iran for three days after they were alleged to have strayed into Iranian territorial waters in the Shatt al-Arab.
But tensions between Iran and the West have soared since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power. Britain and Iran are at loggerheads over Teheran’s backing of Shia insurgents in Iraq and its nuclear programme.
The UK is one of the nations calling for tighter United Nations sanctions to be imposed on Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The UN Security Council is expected to vote on a new resolution today.
A spokesman for the Iranian embassy in London said: “In today’s meeting, Iran’s ambassador also discussed with this British official the latest situation of Iran’s nuclear dossier and British efforts in the UN Security Council in order to pass a new resolution for sanctions against Iran.”
In the Gulf, where the Royal Navy contributes to an international effort to stop smuggling into Iraq, a senior British officer said he hoped the incident might just be due to a local misunderstanding.
This did not stop the markets reacting negatively to news of the incident with the price of a barrel of oil rising by one per cent to just over $62 dollars a barrel.
Any full-blown stand-off with Iran is likely to harm the export of oil from the Gulf as it controls the narrow Straits of Hormuz through which most Kuwaiti, Saudi and Iraqi oil must pass.
The British boarding party consisted of a mixture of Royal Marines and Royal Navy crew on two small boats from Cornwall, a Type-22 Frigate.
As has been standard since the 2003 removal of Saddam’s regime, boarding parties routinely search vessels approaching the Shatt al-Arab looking for weapons, contraband and other illegal material.
The Royal Marines carry assault rifles and side arms although they rarely use them. It is understood yesterday’s search came after reports that the vessel might be carrying stolen cars but after nothing was found the boarding party was preparing to return to Cornwall when the Iranians struck.
Iran has a small but powerful navy fleet made up of large numbers of fast combat boats used to patrol its coastal waters.
It is unclear why Cornwall was unable to spot the approach of the Iranian vessels and react in time to intervene.
The only eyewitness account of the incident came from Iraqi fishermen who reported seeing the Iranian boats arrive very quickly and leave with the British boats without firing a shot.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters,” said Commodore Nick Lambert, the commander of a coalition task force operating in the area. “Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in Iranian territorial waters. I hope we find that this is a simple misunderstanding at a tactical level.
“There was no fighting, no engagement of weapons, anything like that, it was entirely peaceful.
“We have been assured from the scant communication we have had with the Iranians at a tactical level that the 15 people are safely in their hands.”
The timing of the abductions will be exquisite for seasoned observers of Iran’s theocratic regime.
President Ahmadinejad had planned to address the Security Council at UN headquarters in New York today, where he intended to stress that his country’s nuclear programme is for generating energy, not for producing atomic bombs as the West suspects.
However, diplomats implied that he had cancelled because he did not want to face international condemnation.
The UN resolution under discussion today demands Iran halt uranium enrichment that can be used to build a bomb or for peaceful purposes.
It would ban exports of all weapons and freeze assets abroad of 28 more people and institutions, including commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and companies they control, and the state-owned Bank Sepah. It also calls for restrictions on financial assistance or loans to the Iranian government.