Iran General NewsDirect talks with regime lift hopes of deal

Direct talks with regime lift hopes of deal


The Guardian
· Both sides want an early resolution, says Blair
· UK delegation ready to fly out to gain breakthrough The Guardian

· Both sides want an early resolution, says Blair
· UK delegation ready to fly out to gain breakthrough

Julian Borger, Michael Howard in Baghdad and Ewen MacAskill in Washington

British officials last night held direct talks for the first time with Iran’s influential chief international negotiator on the 15 military personnel seized in the Gulf, raising hopes of breaking a 12-day stalemate.

Tony Blair said he believed both sides now wanted “an early resolution” to the stand-off, following the contact with Iran’s national security council head, Ali Larijani.

“There have been further contacts between the United Kingdom and Iran this evening, including directly with Dr Ali Larijani,” Downing Street said. “On the basis of these, the prime minister believes that both sides share a desire for an early resolution of this issue through direct talks.”

Dr Larijani had earlier indicated that Iran wanted the matter resolved diplomatically, and called for a delegation to come to Iran to judge whether the crew had been in Iranian or Iraqi waters as a first precondition for their release.

Last night, a British delegation, probably consisting of naval officers, legal experts and diplomats, was standing ready to fly to Iran at short notice. The team would not formally negotiate the release of the 15 sailors and marines seized by Iran on March 23, British officials insisted, but would try to produce a face-saving way out of the crisis for both sides by discussing how to avoid another incident in the northern Gulf.

“The next 48 hours will be fairly critical,” Tony Blair said yesterday. But British officials are also bracing themselves for a news conference today by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has had little to say about the crisis.

“If they want to resolve this in a diplomatic way, the door is open,” the prime minister said. But if the negotiations stalled, Britain would “take an increasingly tougher position”.

The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, made clear that Britain was not considering the use of force. The prime minister, Mrs Beckett said, “is not talking, or intending to imply, anything about military action,” she said. “We are not seeking confrontation. We are seeking to pursue this through diplomatic channels.” She did warn however that a swift resolution was not yet in sight.

British diplomats had still not been given access to the captive naval crew, and the Foreign Office had still had no “formal response” to a note sent to Tehran on Friday. She proposed the dispatch of the expert delegation for confidence-building talks.

There have been almost daily contacts between the Iranian ambassador in London, Rasoul Movahedian, and David Triesman, a Foreign Office minister. The British ambassador in Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, has also been meeting officials in the Iranian foreign ministry. But those contacts have produced platitudes, British sources say. They believe that Iranian officials may be unwilling to commit themselves until President Ahmadinejad has spoken.

Meanwhile, an Iranian diplomat abducted in Baghdad in February was freed yesterday amid speculation over the identity of his captors and whether his release was part of a deal with Tehran to release the 15 British captives.

Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at Iran’s embassy in Iraq, had been missing since he was plucked from the streets of Baghad’s Karrada neighbourhood on February 4 by a group of men who witnesses said wore Iraqi special commando uniforms.

Iran blamed US forces in Iraq for ordering the diplomat’s abduction, but US military officials denied the claims. Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said yesterday that Mr Sharafi had been fit and well when he was released, but declined to speculate over the identity of his jailers.

Iraqi foreign ministry sources said they were also “trying hard” to convince US officials to release five Iranians seized by US forces during a midnight raid in the Kurdish capital, Arbil.

George Bush, however, said “there should be no quid pro quos when it comes to the hostages”. US and Britain did not request the release of Mr Sharafi, but the Iraqi government may have decided to intervene in an attempt to be helpful.

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