- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

TEHRAN — Iran and Britain signaled possible movement toward ending the standoff over 15 detained British sailors and marines yesterday, with Tehran promising to stop airing video confessions and London saying it’s willing to discuss ways to avoid boundary confusion in the Persian Gulf.

The quieter tone from both capitals raised hopes that the 11-day standoff might be resolved soon. But optimistic signs have emerged before, only to be followed by a hardening of positions and tough rhetoric.

Iran’s chief international negotiator, Ali Larijani, said his country wanted to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and added that he saw no need to put the crew on trial. He had suggested last week that the captives might be tried for intruding into Iranian waters.

Iran’s priority “is to solve the problem through proper diplomatic channels,” Mr. Larijani told Britain’s Channel 4 television news. “We are not interested in letting this issue get further complicated.”

And he called for all involved to stop using “the language of force.”

The Iranian capital, Tehran, was quiet yesterday — a day after hundreds of students hurled firecrackers and rocks at the British Embassy, calling for the expulsion of the country’s ambassador because of the standoff.

Earlier yesterday, an Iranian state-run television station said all 15 of the detained Royal Navy personnel had confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters before they were captured.

However, Iranian state-run radio said the confessions would not be broadcast because of what it called “positive changes” in the negotiating stance of Britain, whose leaders have been angered by the airing of videos of the captives.

The radio did not elaborate on the supposed changes by the British. But in London, a British official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government had agreed to consider ways to avoid such situations in the future.

The official insisted that Britain was not negotiating with the Iranians and still wanted the captives freed unconditionally.

The eight sailors and seven marines were detained March 23 by naval units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards while the Britons patrolled for smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran.

Iran says the team was in Iranian waters. Britain insists that the crew was in Iraqi waters working under a U.N. mandate.

Iran has previously demanded an apology from Britain as a condition for the sailors’ release.

Echoing an Iranian legislator, Mr. Larijani suggested a British delegation visit Tehran “to review the case, to clarify the case, first of all — to clarify whether they have been in our territorial waters at all.”

Over the weekend, the Sunday Telegraph of London said Britain was considering sending a senior Royal Navy officer to Tehran to discuss the return of the captives and how to avoid future incidents.

Mr. Larijani also urged Britain to guarantee “that such violation will not be repeated,” but avoided repeating Tehran’s demand for an apology. British leaders have insisted that they have no reason to apologize.

The comments suggested that the sides were seeking a face-saving formula in which each could argue its interests were upheld while the captives could go free. Under such a formula, Iran could say Britain tacitly acknowledged that the border area is in dispute, and Britain could maintain it never apologized.

A generation ago, such a formula helped free Americans held by Tehran for 444 days. The United States pledged not to interfere in Iranian affairs, enabling the hostage takers to say they had achieved their goal.

The renewed diplomatic efforts between Iran and Britain followed tough rhetoric last week that prompted both governments to dig in their heels.

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