Reuters: The United States insisted on Wednesday it was not escalating tensions with Iran by holding naval exercises in the Gulf and backed British efforts to free 15 sailors and Marines captured last week. By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON, March 28 (Reuters) – The United States insisted on Wednesday it was not escalating tensions with Iran by holding naval exercises in the Gulf and backed British efforts to free 15 sailors and Marines captured last week.
The Bush administration appeared to be adopting a cautious tone on the standoff over the British sailors so as not to disrupt British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s negotiations with Tehran.
“There is no escalation of tensions on our part,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. She added that President George W. Bush spoke with Blair earlier on Wednesday about Iran, among other things, in a secure video conference that had been scheduled before the capture of the British sailors.
“The president fully backs Tony Blair and our allies in Britain,” Perino said.
U.S. naval exercises in the Gulf have rattled global financial markets, causing a jump in oil prices and contributing to declines in stock prices.
Markets were so on edge they were jolted late on Tuesday by a rumor — which proved unfounded — of a clash between Iran and the U.S. Navy.
Oil prices shot up this week on concern that a nuclear dispute between Iran and the West, and Tehran’s seizure of the British personnel, could escalate and disrupt oil moving through the Strait of Hormuz, which handles about a third of the world’s sea-borne oil shipments.
Also playing down the tensions with Iran, an official with the U.S. government’s energy-forecasting agency held out the possibility of using the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to counter any short-term disruption in Mideast Gulf oil shipments.
The U.N. Security Council voted last weekend to tighten sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Iran denies it is seeking to build nuclear weapons and has called the sanctions illegal.
ACCELERATE WAR GAMES PLAN
For the first time since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a second U.S. aircraft carrier has begun exercises in the Gulf.
In Bahrain, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet said the concern over Iran’s nuclear program and the capture of the British sailors played a role in the decision to accelerate the navy war games, but it was “not the sole determinant,” he said.
Perino said the exercises had been long planned. She noted that Bush had talked of the carrier deployment in a Jan. 10 speech outlining his strategy for Iraq in which he also vowed to “protect American interests in the Middle East.”
Perino had no immediate reaction to a statement by the Iranians that they plan to free a woman among the 15 British sailors being held.
The sailors were captured near the waterway that separates Iran and Iraq. Tehran said the sailors were captured because they strayed into Iranian waters but Britain is adamant that they were in Iraqi waters.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the sailors must be released “unconditionally.”
“We do want to see this resolved, we want to see it resolved peacefully and we want to see it resolved by the Iranians doing the right thing, which is letting these guys go,” Casey said.
Pressed on whether the United States would consider swapping Iranians held in Iraq for the British sailors, he said: “That is a hypothetical question and I am not aware that anyone has proposed that.”
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Tom Doggett)