TEHRAN, Iran – Iran warned on Tuesday that it will prosecute five British sailors if it is proven they had "bad intentions" when their 60-foot racing yacht entered its waters, in what Britain says was an innocent case of a vessel accidentally going astray in the Gulf.
London was trying to keep the incident from getting tangled up in politics — not only in the rancor between Tehran and the West over Iran's nuclear issue but also the country's own internal postelection turmoil, which has pumped up the leadership's fears of foreign plots.
Such tensions have already snarled attempts to free three Americans arrested by Iran this summer after they strayed across the border from Iraq. Washington and their families say the three unintentionally crossed into Iran while hiking, but Tehran — after investigating them for months — recently accused them of espionage.
The yacht is the pride of a high-profile racing program sponsored by the king of the tiny Arab island nation of Bahrain, which has been trying to build itself as a financial and sporting powerhouse.
The vessel was on its way from Bahrain to Dubai last Wednesday for the start of its first off-shore race when it had a problem with its propeller, according to Andrew Pindar, whose Team Pindar owns the yacht. It drifted into Iranian waters and was seized by the elite Revolutionary Guard near the Iranian island of Sirri, which lies near the mouth of the narrow Hormuz Strait off Dubai.
"There is certainly no question of any malicious intent on the part of these five young people," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters in London, saying the entry into Iranian waters was inadvertant.
"This is a human story ... It's got nothing to do with politics, it's got nothing to do with the nuclear enrichment program," Miliband said. "We are keen this be resolved as soon as possible."
But Britain expressed frustration, saying that since the detention a week ago, Iran has not let consular officials see the yachtsmen or confirmed they were being on Sirri, as London believes. The head of Britain's diplomatic service, Peter Ricketts, met with Iran's ambassador Tuesday to call for a "speedy resolution."
London is "approaching this manner in a calm but resolute manner, and aggressive rhetoric will not improve the situation," he said. But the delay in an Iranian explanation was "a matter of increasing concern," the Foreign Office said.
In Tehran, the head of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's office said Iran will prosecute the Britons if they intended to "violate the national security" of Iran.
"Naturally if bad intentions on the part of these individuals are proven, there will be a serious and strong attitude toward them," Esfandiar Rahim Mashai said, according to the Fars news agency. "The decision will be up to the judiciary, which is independent of the administration."
In an interview with Iranian TV on Tuesday, Ahmadinejad made no mention of the yachtsmen. But he singled out Britain for criticism, saying it and Israel were behind a tough resolution by the U.N. nuclear watchdog rebuking Iran over its nuclear program.
In a further sign the yachtsmen's situation could get politicized, Iran's state news agency IRNA said hard-line students plan to protest at Britain's embassy in Tehran on Wednesday against "the illegal trespassing."
The five were detained by the Revolutionary Guard, Fars reported. The Guard, which runs its own naval forces, has the responsibility of protecting Iran's Persian Gulf waters.
In 2007, Iran seized 15 British military personnel in the Gulf, claiming they had entered Iranian waters, though Britain insisted they were in Iraqi waters. Eventually all were freed without an apology from Britain.
But the latest incident takes place at a time of greater tumult within Iran. Since disputed presidential elections in June, the Revolutionary Guard has been cracking down fiercely on the opposition, claiming they are part of a Western plot to overthrow the clerical leadership.
That appears to have translated into a spiraling fear of foreign conspiracies.
Iran last month accused the three detained Americans of espionage, suggesting they might be put on trial. Also, an American-Iranian academic caught up in the postelection arrests, Kian Tajbakhsh, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for espionage, the harshest prison sentence yet in the crackdown.
A Canadian-Iranian journalist for Newsweek, Maziar Bahari, was arrested in the same sweep. Since his release in October, he has said his interrogators questioned him extensively over a joke interview he made with the American comedy program The Daily Show, because they were convinced he was talking to a spy.
British media identified the five Britons as Oliver Smith, of Southampton; Sam Usher, of Scarborough; Luke Porter, of Weston-super-Mare; Oliver Young, of Saltash; and David Bloomer, who is from Malahide, Ireland but holds a British passport.
Porter's family said he was able to call them early Thursday shortly after his capture.
His father, Charles, said Porter told him "he was fine" but couldn't answer many questions, including where he was being held.
"I got the feeling that the telephone conversation was fairly well monitored," Charles Porter said in a television interview. "Someone was giving him instructions as to what he could and what he couldn't answer."
"He sounded ... not exactly upbeat, but in control of his personal situation."
The seizure of the yacht, called Kingdom of Bahrain, is also a snub to that Arab nation, which has long had a tense relationship with its larger neighbor across the Gulf.
Team Pindar, an independent British-based yachting team, runs the yacht under the Sail Bahrain initiative, in which the kingdom is a partner. The yacht had been heading to join the 360-mile Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race, which was to begin Nov. 26. The race went ahead without the yacht.