Iran General NewsBlair says Iran row at critical stage

Blair says Iran row at critical stage

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Reuters: Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday the way was open for diplomatic efforts to secure the release of 15 British sailors and marines seized by Iran, and the next 48 hours would be critical. By David Clarke

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday the way was open for diplomatic efforts to secure the release of 15 British sailors and marines seized by Iran, and the next 48 hours would be critical.

The two countries have been at loggerheads since Iran captured the sailors on March 23 in the northern the Gulf, but there have been few signs of real progress.

British moves to get the international community to condemn Iran have angered Tehran while Britain has criticised the parading of its military personnel on Iranian television, saying the broadcasted admissions of guilt had been forced.

On Monday Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said he believed bilateral diplomacy could resolve the crisis quickly. Britain responded by saying it too would like early talks to end the row.

Oil prices fell on Tuesday on hopes there would be a diplomatic solution to the 12-day stand-off that has heightened Middle East tensions and helped push crude prices up $10.

“The next 48 hours will be fairly critical,” Blair told a radio station in Scotland.

“We’re not looking for confrontation over this and actually the most important thing is to get the people back safe and sound. And if they want to resolve this in a diplomatic way the door is open,” he said.

The dispute centres on where the sailors were when they were seized. Britain insists they were in Iraqi waters on a routine U.N. mission, but Tehran says they were in its territory.

Both sides are standing firm on this, but Larijani left the door open by saying a “delegation” should be sent to determine whether the British sailors were in Iran or not.

Experts in international borders say territorial sea boundaries between Iran and Iraq are inadequately defined, which may give Britain and Iran room to “agree to disagree”.

Larijani did not ask Britain to apologise. He said Iran wanted a guarantee there would be no more border violations by Britain but there was no need to put the sailors on trial.

NOT IRRESOLVABLE

“It’s certainly not an irresolvable dispute,” said Martin Pratt, the director of the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University.

“The fact that the coastline is constantly shifting means that more issues would need to be taken into consideration than if the coastlines were more stable and there was agreement on exactly where the baselines along the coast were,” he said.

However analysts said hopes for a diplomatic success could still be derailed by anti-Western hardliners within Iran, the world’s fourth-biggest oil exporter.

They say the powerful Revolutionary Guards who seized the Britons are relishing the chance to flex their muscles against London, a former imperial power with a long history of involvement in Iranian politics.

Policy is ultimately decide by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, under the Islamic Republic’s system of clerical rule. But analysts say he seeks to find a consensus, giving room for rival factions to battle for influence.

Some analysts say Larijani has sought to calm the row as it is only likely to make his job as the country’s chief nuclear negotiator more difficult.

Western diplomats say — and even some Iranian officials privately admit — Larijani’s negotiating efforts in the past were sometimes hijacked by anti-Western statements by Ahmadinejad, who beat Larijani in the 2005 presidential race.

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran, Luke Baker and Kate Kelland in London)

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