Reuters: Britain has sent Iran a written reply to its note on the detention of 15 British naval personnel in the Gulf eight days ago and the two sides are now talking, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said on Saturday. By Louis Charbonneau
BREMEN, Germany (Reuters) – Britain has sent Iran a written reply to its note on the detention of 15 British naval personnel in the Gulf eight days ago and the two sides are now talking, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said on Saturday.
Iran’s ambassador to Moscow was quoted as saying the Britons may face trial for illegally entering the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters and suggested legal action had already begun.
Iran seized the sailors and marines in the northern Gulf on March 23 when they were on a U.N. mission searching for smugglers in Iraqi waters. Tehran says they strayed into Iranian waters but Britain insists they were well in Iraqi territory.
The crisis, at a time of heightened Middle East tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has helped push oil prices to six-month highs over concerns an escalation might curb crucial oil exports from the region.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry delivered a letter to Britain’s embassy in Tehran on Thursday, the first written communication between the two capitals since the crisis erupted March 23.
Iran’s IRNA news agency said the Iranian message asked for “necessary guarantees that violations against Iranian waters would not be repeated”. But it did not appear to demand an apology from Britain as several officials have called for.
Speaking to reporters at a European Union foreign ministers’ meeting in Germany, Beckett said: “We have made our response and we are now beginning to discuss. As you may know it’s a holiday period in Iran and it’s perhaps not too helpful.”
The Iranian government is largely shut down for the two-week Nowruz holiday, a pre-Islamic Persian new year, which began on March 21 and ends next Tuesday.
Beckett said there had so far been no written response to the British reply. “We had a diplomatic note. We have returned a diplomatic note,” she said.
Asked by an Iranian television reporter if she had a message for Iran, Beckett said: “The message I want to send is I think everyone regrets that this position has arisen. What we want is a way out of it.”
“OLD BRITISH DEVIL”
However, there was no sign in Tehran on Saturday Iran would bow to Western pressure and free the Britons. Instead, Iran’s ambassador to Moscow said they may be taken to court.
“It is possible that the British soldiers who entered into Iranian waters will go on trial for taking this illegal action,” Ambassador Gholamreza Ansari told Russian television channel Vesti-24, according to Iran’s IRNA news agency.
“The legal phase concerning these British soldiers has started and if charges against them are proven, they will be punished,” said Ansari. IRNA said he spoke on Friday evening.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on March 25 Iran was considering charging the British sailors with illegally entering its waters. Ansari appeared to suggest the process had started but did not specify what the legal moves were.
Iran has close diplomatic and commercial ties with Russia.
Asked about the report, a Foreign Office official in London reiterated the demand for the Britons’ release. “We are not going to get drawn into public discussions with the Iranians.”
Separately on Saturday, student members of the Basij religious militia from across Iran issued a statement demanding that the British embassy in Tehran be closed down, calling it the “corruption nest of the British old devil”, IRNA said.
It came a day after Iran displayed three of the detained Britons on television and released a letter from one saying she was being held because of “oppressive” British and U.S. behaviour in Iraq.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said the footage increased people’s disgust at their treatment and risked isolating Tehran further. He urged calm and patience over the crisis.
EU foreign ministers voiced solidarity with Britain at their summit in Germany but stopped short of suspending normal business with Tehran as London has done.
British forces have been deployed in southern Iraq since joining the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003. Britain and the United States accuse Iran of allowing sophisticated weapons used to target their forces to be brought into Iraq.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran and Adrian Croft in London)