- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

LONDON — Britain intends to send a senior Royal Navy officer to Tehran with a face-saving plan to win the release of 15 sailors and marines, officials said amid confirmation of direct contacts with Tehran over the matter.

Tensions remained high yesterday, with Iran moving toward trials for the seamen and protesters in Tehran throwing stones and firecrackers at the British Embassy.

Iranian television showed pictures of two captured British sailors pointing to a map. Their voices were not heard, but the broadcast said the two admitted they were in Iranian waters when they were captured on March 23.

The naval officer, who has commanded ships in the Persian Gulf, would provide Iran with a public assurance that the Royal Navy would never knowingly enter Iranian waters in the future without securing Tehran’s permission, officials told the Sunday Telegraph. Officials hope that would be enough to placate Iran’s leaders.

The plan was discussed at a meeting of a crisis committee Saturday attended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

Defense officials emphasized that they were not preparing to concede that the two British boats detained 10 days ago were at fault.

It was not clear when the officer would travel to Iran, but Defense Secretary Des Browne said on the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday that the government is “in direct bilateral communication with the Iranians.”

A Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said Mr. Browne was referring to letters and other contacts between diplomats, rather than any new face-to-face talks.

Mrs. Beckett said Saturday that Britain has replied to a letter from the Iranian Embassy in London, sent on Thursday, which called on the government to acknowledge that the sailors had trespassed into Iranian waters and promise it would not happen again.

“Everyone regrets that this position has arisen,” she said. “What we want is a way out of it. We want it peacefully, and we want it as soon as possible.”

About 200 protesters gathered outside the British Embassy in Tehran yesterday, chanting, “British, British, death to you, death to you,” Reuters news agency reported.

The protesters scuffled with police and threw firecrackers into the embassy compound, producing loud bangs and clouds of smoke but no damage or injuries.

Also in Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini lashed out at President Bush, who on Saturday had described the 15 seamen as “hostages” and called their detention “inexcusable behavior.”

“Any comments by Americans in support of the British government could make the situation worse. Therefore, it is better if the American president does not make nontechnical, ill-considered and illogical comments,” Mr. Hosseini said, according to Reuters.

On Saturday, for the first time, British officials explicitly cautioned against hopes of a speedy outcome, saying that the families of the hostages should prepare for the “long haul.” Officials are speculating privately that the crisis could continue for months.

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