Tehran (AFP) March 31, 2007
Iran on Saturday again warned Britain against politicising the seizure of its 15 navy personnel, saying that could complicate efforts to resolve the escalating crisis.
The warning from Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki came as a senior Iranian diplomat said legal proceedings had begun against the sailors and marines for illegally entering Iranian waters but denied reports of a trial.
"British leaders should avoid media storms and politicisation to prevent a further complication of the affair," Iranian media quoted Mottaki as telling his Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer, in a telephone conversation.
The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has received strong backing from both the United States and the European Union, with Tehran on Saturday slamming the EU's "irrational" support.
"Iran rejects the EU's partial and meddling position in the 15 sailors' detention affair ... and urges European countries to refrain from impulsive and irresponsible comments," a foreign ministry statement said.
It warned EU leaders to avoid "uncalled-for interference in a completely bilateral affair between Iran and Britain."
EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Germany on Friday deplored the seizure of the Britons as a breach of international law and threatened to take "appropriate measures" if they were not released soon.
The EU move came after Britain on Thursday secured a UN Security Council statement on the Iranian action, but which was less strident than London had hoped for.
Tehran has so far refused to bow to mounting pressure to release the naval personnel, who are being held in a secret location and occasionally put on television allegedly confessing to and apologising for their transgressions.
Britain insists they were on a routine anti-smuggling patrol in Iraqi waters under a UN mandate but Iran says they were in its territorial waters.
Several conservative Iranian MPs and clerics are demanding the detainees be put on trial.
But Iran's ambassador to Moscow denied media reports originally from Russian television quoting him as suggesting the 15 might face trial.
"The network has made a mistake in translating the comments about detained British personnel and has reported the possibility of their trial," Gholam Reza Ansari told the Iranian state news agency IRNA.
In comments on the channel's Internet site, Ansari was quoted as saying "no kind of apology has been received from the British side and as a result the case has taken on a juridical form."
Earlier, IRNA itself had published what it said were excerpts from the interview in which Ansari was quoted as saying the British sailors "could go on trial for this illegal act".
But Ansari on Saturday said only that "the issue of British forces detention has entered legal proceedings."
Amid the public war of words, quiet diplomacy continued, with British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett saying her ministry had received and responded to a diplomatic note from Tehran, without elaborating.
"We would like to be told where our personnel are, we would like to be given access to them, but we want it resolved," Beckett said on the sidelines of the meeting with her EU counterparts in Germany.
Washington has rejected suggestions the Britons could be exchanged for five Iranian officials held by US forces in Iraq, while voicing its concern over footage of the captives making alleged confessions shown on Iranian television.
A Royal Navy serviceman, named as Nathan Thomas Summers, said in the interview broadcast on Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television: "I would like to apologise for entering your waters without any permission."
Britain has already frozen most ties with Iran, a move Tehran blamed for its decision not to free the sole woman detained as promised earlier this week.
Turkey, close to both the West and Iran, also said it was trying to obtain the sailors' release in order to avoid the crisis being used as a pretext for military action.
Ankara "has asked Tehran not to let the situation worsen and to free rapidly the British sailors," parliament speaker Bulent Arinc said in Lisbon, "in order to avoid any pretext for hostilities."
Both Britain and Iran have produced maps and global positioning system (GPS) coordinates to back their cases over where the sailors were when they were seized at gunpoint on March 23.
earlier related report
While hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lashed out again this weekend at the "arrogant" attitude of the British government, other more pragmatic forces might be more willing to seek a compromise to de-escalate the crisis.
"It is important to emphasise that internal tensions are at work in Iran ... this action may not have the support of more moderate forces in government," said Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Ahmadinejad "is in power but, at the same time, we have seen a waning of his political fortunes since the end of last year", added Mark Thomas, from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.
The Iranian president has been involved in a mounting standoff with the West since taking office in 2005 over Tehran's nuclear programme, which critics suspect of being a front for a drive to build nuclear arms.
Some see the detainees crisis -- sparked by Iran's detention of 15 British sailors and marines in the northern Gulf on March 23 -- as a tactic to divert attention from the nuclear issue, or as part of that standoff.
"It is possible that (this) may be an attempt to show that Iran should be taken seriously and that there could be repercussions if the five permanent members of the UN are too harsh on Iran" on the nuclear issue, said Riecke.
Others have suggested Tehran could be hoping to exchange the Britons for a group of Iranians seized by US forces in Iraq -- President George W. Bush said Saturday there could be no "quid pro quos."
But even before the latest crisis erupted, it was clear that there were divisions between Ahmadinejad, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the hardline Revolutionary Guard.
The row over the British captives may now have "got caught up in the power struggles in Tehran," said Rosemary Hollis of the London-based international think-tank Chatham House.
"We don't know for sure why they did it ... We don't know if it was a deliberate political decision at the highest level or a decision of the Revolutionary Guard for their own purposes."
Many underline the opposition to the hardline Iranian president in Tehran.
"We've seen a coalition from right across the political spectrum in Iran, hardliners, reformists and pragmatists against Ahmadinejad's policy," said Thomas.
"There were three significant figures in Iran disagreeing with each other," added Hollis, referring to the president, Rafsanjani and Khamenei.
For some this might explain why Ahmadinejad might seek to fan nationalist fervour with the detainees crisis -- British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett accused him of "sabre-rattling" Saturday -- backed by the Revolutionary Guard,
It is the Guards who are in charge of the area where the 15 were captured. and, citing a senior Iranian source, the BBC claims that the detainees are in their hands.
For Thomas, this suggests that the prognosis for a swift result in Britain's favour is not as hopeful as in 2004, when a party of British troops were captured by Iran in similar circumstances.
The British Foreign Office is dealing with the Iranian foreign ministry. But there are questions over how much weight the ministry in Tehran has in the power play between the hardline and other forces.
"The hopes of a quick resolution now are not as good as they were in 2004 just because these hardliners are in power now, and also because of the more tense situation because of the nuclear programme," Thomas added.
earlier related report
Western estimates put the strength of the force, known as Sepah-eh Pasdaran in Farsi, at around 350,000.
The Guards were formed on May 5, 1979, following the official declaration of the Islamic republic by its founder, Ayatollah Rudollah Khomeini.
They come under the direct control of Iran's supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also appoints their commanders.
From 1980 to 1988 they played a prominent role in the eight-year war with Iran's neighbour, Iraq.
The same force was responsible for holding eight British sailors for three days in 2004.
The Revolutionary Guards have the best available military hardware -- from the Shab-3 missile capable of reaching Israel to the Russian-made TOR-M1 air defence system to protect the country's nuclear sites.
They have staged a series of military manoeuvres this year, notably in the Gulf, testing missiles capable of hitting all countries in the region.
The political arm of the Pasdaran is as strong as its military one.
Such leading politicians as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, security chief Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf have all served in its ranks.
UN Security Council sanctions on Tehran for its continued refusal to freeze uranium enrichment -- centring on Western concerns Iran may be seeking to make atomic weapons -- block all Iranian arms exports and freeze the overseas assets of officials and institutions linked to the country's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Several high-ranking Pasdaran chiefs are among those targeted by the sanctions.
Washington accuses the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Army branch of aiding Shiite rebels in Iraq, which Tehran denies.
In January, US forces raided an Iranian government office in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil and arrested five employees, accusing them of having links to the Pasdaran and supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
Iran's opponents also say the Guards were responsible for creating Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Revolutionary Guards play a prime role in policing Iran's borders, with the most sensitive areas under their direct control.
They are also tasked with fighting armed opposition groups through the Basij Islamist militia, a 10-million-strong forced armed and trained by the Pasdaran.
In February, the Revolutionary Guards fought rebel Kurds in Iran's West Azarbaijan province, on the borders with Iraq and Turkey, in clashes that killed more than 50 people.
The same month a booby-trap car bomb targeted a bus full of Pasdaran at Zahedan, the main town in Sistan-Baluchistan province on the frontier with Pakistan. Thirteen Revolutionary Guards were killed.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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Washington (AFP) March 30, 2007
Nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz will sail Monday to support US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Navy said, amid a spike in tensions over Iran's seizure of 15 British marines and sailors.
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