Published March 29, 2007
UNITED NATIONS – Britain took its case to free its 15 sailors and marines held by Iran to the United Nations on Thursday, asking the Security Council to support a statement that would "deplore" Tehran's action and demand their immediate release.
But Security Council diplomats said the brief press statement circulated by Britain's U.N. Mission is likely to face problems from Russia and others because it says the Britons were "operating in Iraqi waters" — a point that Iran contests.
The British move came as Iran rolled back on its promise to release the sole female British sailor among the captives, Faye Turney. The Iranian military chief, Gen. Ali Reza Afshar, said that because of the "wrong behavior" of the British government, "the release of a female British soldier has been suspended," the semiofficial Iranian news agency Mehr reported.
Iran's top negotiator, Ali Larijani, also hinted that the British crew members may be put on trial.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government released a second letter allegedly written by Turney and previously unseen footage allegedly showing the operation that seized the British troops was aired on Iranian state television.
The veracity of the letter could not immediately be determined. It was addressed to the House of Commons, and called for a pullout of British troops from Iraq.
In the five-seconds long footage that aired on Iran's state-run Al-Alam station, gunshots were heard and a helicopter is shown hovering above inflatable boats in choppy seas. Iranian guard boats are shown cruising around while a couple of Iranian guardsmen shoot into the air. Then, some of the British sailors appear seated in a boat with an Iranian flag, presumably after their capture.
Also in the broadcast, Iranian chief coastal guard of the Arvand River — which is the Farsi name for the Shatt el-Arab waterway — is interviewed in an office, before a map of the area.
Col. Setareh, who was not identified by his first name, reportedly explains how the seizure occurred and points to locations on the map of the place of detention.
In London, Britain's Ministry of Defense said its position remained unchanged by the new footage.
On Wednesday, Iran broadcast the first pictures of the 15 British sailors and marines. In that video, Turney, 26, wore a white tunic and a black head scarf and said the British boats had "trespassed" in Iranian waters.
At one point, a handwritten letter from Turney is shown, apologizing to the Iranian people for entering their waters. The British were also shown sitting in a room eating.
The British statement was to be discussed later Thursday at a closed-door meeting of the Security Council.
The text circulated to the 14 other council members said: "Members of the Security Council deplore the continuing detention by the government of Iran of 15 (United Kingdom) naval personnel."
It added that the British crew was "operating in Iraqi waters as part of the Multinational Force-Iraq under a mandate from the Security Council under resolution 1723 and at the request of the government of Iraq" and it called for their "immediate release."
A press statement is the weakest action the Security Council can take, but the statement must be approved by all council members. Diplomats said Britain was also weighing a stronger presidential statement, which unlike a press statement, is read at a formal Security Council meeting and becomes part of its official record.
The council diplomats said informal discussion of the proposed British statement indicated the issue of where the incident took place raised problems for some council members, including Russia. Some members also want to hear the Iranian side, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
The British government said that its sailors and marines were seized Friday after completing a search of a civilian ship near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which forms the border between Iran and Iraq, under a mandate from the Security Council and at the request of Iraq. Iran says the British vessels were inside its territorial waters.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman dismissed a suggestion Wednesday by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki that Britain should resolve the crisis by admitting that its personnel had made a "mistake" and crossed into Iranian waters.
The British initially circulated a press statement, which is the weakest action that the U.N. Security Council could take, but diplomats said they might be considering a stronger presidential statement, which unlike a press statement, is read at a formal council meeting and becomes part of its official record.
Mottaki had said Wednesday that sailor Faye Turney, 26, would be released within 48 hours. Britain said it was halting all discussion with Iran except negotiations to free the detained sailors, and expressed outrage over Iran's broadcast of images of the captured service members.
Larijani said on Iranian state radio that: "British leaders have miscalculated this issue."
If Britain follows through with its policies toward Iran, Larijani said "this case may face a legal path" — a clear reference to Iran's prosecuting the sailors in court.
Blair's official spokesman said Britain wanted to resolve the crisis quickly and without having a "confrontation over this."
"We are not seeking to put Iran in a corner. We are simply saying, 'Please release the personnel who should not have been seized in the first place,"' said the spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
But in a briefing to reporters, the spokesman said British officials had been angered by Tehran's decision to show the captives on Iranian television.
"Nobody should be put in that position. It is an impossible position to be put in," he said. "It is wrong. It is wrong in terms of the usual conventions that cover this. It is wrong in terms of basic humanity."
Britain's ambassador to Tehran lodged an official complaint of Iran's decision to show the video, the Foreign Office said.
"Today the British ambassador in Tehran met with Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials to protest about the TV pictures of Leading Seaman Faye Turney," said a Foreign Office spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.
Britain's Ministry of Defense released coordinates that it said proved the captured naval personnel were seized 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters.
Oil prices rose by more than $1 a barrel Wednesday to a six-month high as the U.S. Navy completed its largest show of force in the Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
President Bush has discussed the 15 Britons with Blair, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said, and fully backs the British position.