- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

NEW YORK — The Iranian government will charge 15 captured British service members with “illegal entrance into Iranian waters,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said yesterday, raising the stakes in his country’s confrontation with an outraged British government.

Mr. Mottaki told reporters in New York that the matter had already been referred to the Iranian legal system and that the 14 men and one woman, who were captured in the Persian Gulf on Friday, would stand trial.

“Iranian authorities intercepted these sailors and marines in Iranian waters,” said the minister, who was in New York for an unrelated vote Saturday in which the U.N. Security Council imposed new sanctions against his government.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said “there is no doubt at all” that the seizure took place in Iraqi waters.

Mr. Mottaki said the Foreign Ministry had already demanded an explanation from the British ambassador in Tehran.

In a telephone conversation later yesterday with British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, Mr. Mottaki reportedly said Iran may give British diplomats access to the detained service members.

Mr. Blair, in his first public statements on the subject, demanded in Berlin that Tehran release the 15 sailors and marines and give British officials immediate access to the detainees.

“I have not been commenting up to now on this, because I want to get it resolved in as easy and diplomatic a way as possible, because it is the welfare of the people concerned that have been taken by the Iranian government that is most important,” Mr. Blair said on the sidelines of a European summit. “But this is a very serious situation.”

He added: “I hope that this can be resolved over the next few days, but the quicker it is resolved, the easier it will be for all of us. But [the Iranians] should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which was unjustified and wrong.”

The service members were apprehended on Friday while they were searching for contraband on a cargo ship in the Shatt al-Arab waterway — known in Iran as the Arvand River — that divides Iran from Iraq.

Iraqi fishermen and the British government insist the group was on the Iraqi side of the waterway, while Iran claims it was in Iranian waters.

The British government, which co-sponsored Saturday’s Security Council resolution, has tried to keep the two issues separate during the council negotiations.

That resolution called for governments to limit Iranian arms sales and purchases, monitor travel by Iranian officials and apply other measures that are tailored not to harm the general population.

The sanctions will be lifted if the Iranian government halts its nuclear-enrichment activities and resumes negotiations with the European Union about its nuclear-power program, which the West fears is a precursor to a weapons program.

“Our actions are clear and transparent,” Mr. Mottaki told reporters yesterday, declining to answer a question about why the government had hidden its nuclear program for nearly 20 years.

Tehran has repeatedly refused to accede to the Security Council’s demands, and Mr. Mottaki said yesterday that the Security Council — which failed for eight years to condemn the Iran-Iraq war — had no legitimacy in his country.

Mr. Mottaki was also cool to an offer, presented Saturday by the five permanent council members and Germany, to talk about a partnership with foreign governments to create a safe nuclear-power industry.

“In the near future, we will announce our position on the resolution,” he said, noting that Iran’s nuclear program should not be the business of the U.N. Security Council, but the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mr. Mottaki insisted that Iran would always opt for cooperation rather than confrontation, but said the Western countries had no “political will” for negotiations because they had imposed the precondition of suspension before talks could begin.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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