- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iranian officials yesterday backed off a threat to prosecute eight British seamen seized a day earlier in its territorial waters, saying the sailors would be released if their interrogations showed that they had “no bad intention.”

The seizure of three British navy vessels in the Shatt-al-Arab between Iran and Iraq follows a spate of hostile incidents between Iran and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf and nearby waters.

The seamen had been traveling up the mile-wide waterway to deliver a patrol boat for a new Iraqi river-patrol service. British officials privately speculated that the seamen might have strayed across the center line into Iranian waters because of bad weather.

Iran’s state-run Al-Alam television said the seamen had been captured about a half-mile inside Iranian territory and that they would be prosecuted “for illegally entering Iranian territorial waters.”

Iranian television showed the captured men, despondent but apparently uninjured, sitting in a semicircle. A later broadcast showed a man who identified himself as Sgt. Thomas Harkins from the British Royal Marines saying, “I do apologize for entering Iranian territorial waters.”

The official Islamic Republic News Agency subsequently quoted armed forces spokesman Gen. Ali Reza Afshar as saying, “If the outcome of the interrogations of the British military men shows that they had no bad intention, they will be released soon.”

Analysts had speculated that Tehran’s decision to hold the seamen was related to a new, tougher line taken by Britain with its European allies over suspicions that Iran is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program.

But some diplomats in the region noted that Iran has behaved in a similar fashion recently with several of its neighbors, following a pattern that is not uncommon during the fishing season in the Persian Gulf.

In an action that closely paralleled the Monday seizures, Iran announced last week that it had confiscated seven boats carrying nearly 30 crew members from the United Arab Emirates. As with the British seamen, Tehran said the boats had entered its territorial waters and that the sailors would be prosecuted.

Other recent incidents have pitted Iran against Qatar and Oman, making diplomats wonder whether Tehran was escalating the situation deliberately.

The incidents started nearly a month ago, when Iran announced that one of its fishing boats had been confiscated off the coast of the UAE and the crew arrested.

Although the Iranian media played up the arrests, UAE officials remained quiet, saying they would like to settle the matter peacefully.

Within days, Tehran said another of its boats had been fired upon by a coast guard vessel from Qatar.

Tehran summoned Qatar’s ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to complain about the deaths or injuries of several of the boat’s crew members, but Qatar made no public statements.

“The problem is that the Iranians are upping the ante for some reason” by publicizing the incidents, one Western diplomat said.

“They are either provocatively sending their ships into the territorial waters of the neighboring countries or confiscating UAE boats in the disputed waters. The question is why.”

Some diplomats speculate that the incidents are related to the internal politics of the Islamic republic.

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