TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's state media reported Wednesday that an Iranian envoy will be allowed to meet five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq since January — a possible sign of further progress toward ending a British-Iranian standoff.
The report appeared as Britain and Iran were entering a sensitive phase in the efforts to free 15 British sailors and marines captured by the Iranians last month in disputed waters of the Persian Gulf.
A separate Iranian diplomat seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran. Iran had blamed the U.S. for the abduction, a charge American authorities denied.
The detention of the five other Iranians occurred in January in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish self-governing region in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurds, like the country's Shiites, maintain close ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, despite their warm relationship with the U.S. — and they had been upset over the arrests in their own capital.
Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, told The Associated Press that the case of the five detained Iranians had no connection with that of the British sailors and marines.
However, the moves on that case and the release of the Iranian diplomat raised the possibility that a possible swap was in the works.
Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency said an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet with the five detained Iranians but gave no further details.
In Baghdad, U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said he could not comment on the IRNA report but added that Iraq "has asked us to expedite our investigation" into the arrests of the people as well as their status.
U.S. troops detained the five Iranians on Jan. 11, accusing them of links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard network that was supplying money and weapons to insurgents in Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said President Bush had approved the strategy of raiding Iranian targets in Iraq as part of efforts to confront the government in Tehran.
Iran denounced the raid and insisted that the five were diplomats who were engaged exclusively in consular work. The Iraqi government said they were arrested at an office that was supposed to become an Iranian consulate.
Zebari said his government had been relaying Iranian requests for a meeting with the five detainees, but could not confirm that the request had been approved.
The British newspaper The Independent reported this week that the Irbil raid had escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran and may have set the stage for the March 23 seizing of the British naval personnel.
In a commentary, the Iranian news agency said the movement on the Iranian prisoner issue was due in part to "the new American political and military appointments in Iraq."
The agency was referring to Gen. David Petraeus, who assumed command of U.S. forces in February, and Ryan Crocker who began work as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq this month.
Also Wednesday, a Kuwaiti newspaper quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem as saying Syria was also mediating the case of the 15 Britons.
"This solution needs quiet diplomacy and Syria is now undertaking such quiet diplomacy between the two countries," al-Moallem told the paper Al-Anba. "We hope for a satisfactory solution that will lead to resolving the crisis of the British soldiers held captive in Iran."