- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

TEHRAN — British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Iran yesterday of a “different phase” in the standoff over 15 detained British sailors and marines, while a former Iranian ambassador with close ties to the regime said Iran wants the release of at least seven of its officials.

Mr. Blair told GMTV in an interview that Britain is attempting to free its service members, including one woman, through “diplomatic channels.”

“If not, then this will move into a different phase,” Mr. Blair said.

Iran signaled that it is eyeing a prisoner exchange.

Crude oil futures jumped to their highest levels in six months in after-hours trading in New York yesterday on market rumors of military action in the Persian Gulf, but the White House said it was unaware of any incident, Reuters news agency reported.

Asked to comment after the price spike, the U.S. Navy said there was nothing to substantiate a rumor of an Iranian strike on a U.S. ship. The White House said there was nothing to indicate any incident taking place regarding Iran.

“It seems the Iranians are not going to give back the 15 until they have their diplomats back, too,” a former Iranian ambassador told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity. “The Iranian perception now is of a real threat from the U.S. and Israel.”

Six Iranian officials, whom Tehran claims were diplomats, were arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January in a raid by the U.S. Army. Washington claims they belong to the Quds Force of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps that specializes in foreign missions.

A seventh, former Deputy Defense Minister Alireza Askari, a veteran of the Revolutionary Guard, disappeared in recent months. He was last seen in Istanbul last month.

Amid the escalating standoff, the U.S. Navy yesterday began its largest demonstration of force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with two aircraft carriers and backed by warplanes flying simulated attack maneuvers off the coast of Iran, the Associated Press reported.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi denied reports that Iran sought a prisoner swap. The Bush administration also rejected any link.

“The Iranians haven’t drawn a connection between that, and we certainly wouldn’t either,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

The U.S. Navy said there was no connection between its war games and the latest crisis.

But an intense debate is reportedly raging within Iran’s militant Islamist regime on how to take advantage of the situation, with hard-liners and reformers disagreeing on how to resolve the standoff.

One hard-line member of the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, warned the government not to be affected by British-influenced circles, according to a report on the Baztab Web site.

“Everything could go out of control now on both sides,” said the former ambassador, who remains in close contact with senior Iranian officials who deal with military and security matters. “We have passed a red line. When there is a psychological war between Iran and the U.S., then every signal from the other side will be interpreted as a threat.”

By moving the British sailors and marines to Tehran, the Iranian government has shown signs that it is taking this case extremely seriously and treating it as political rather than merely security-related. There have been several past examples of foreign nationals being apprehended in the Persian Gulf and having local judiciaries try them without transferring them to Tehran.

The conservative, Farsi-language Khedmat.ir Web site that is close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration quoted a “diplomatic source” on Sunday saying that the government is “resolved not to hand in these soldiers before their government’s official apology and declaring that similar cases will not occur in the future.”

“As the aggressor British soldiers were armed, if their entry was a deliberate act and if the charge of espionage is proved, the ensuing verdict will be a heavy one,” predicted the Khedmat.ir article.

The British approach has been discreet and anxious to avoid confrontational rhetoric that will harden the Iranian government’s position. In a sign that Tehran is establishing rhetoric space for it to backtrack on the detention of the soldiers, Mr. Mostafavi, the deputy foreign minister, stated that his government was trying to establish “whether their entry was intentional or unintentional.”

“This is not the first time, but more than several times that Britons have intervened in Iranian waters,” said the analyst. “The Iranian side ignored or would alert them to leave Iranian waters [except for] twice when they were arrested.”

He added that the detainees remain in the custody of the armed forces and have not been handed over to the government yet. The British Embassy in Tehran has not been allowed consular access yet, nor does it know where they are being held.

In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iran off southern Iraq and held for three days before being released unharmed.

Behrad Nakhai, an Iranian nuclear engineer and commentator, said: “The ‘dangerous’ escalation started with the illegal capture of Iranians in Iraq, the Iranians who were there with the full knowledge and acceptance of the Iraqi government and the officials in the Kurdish area.”

A Revolutionary Guard-affiliated newspaper, Sobh-e Sadegh, published an article last month warning that Iran could strike back against the West and “capture a nice bunch of blue-eyed, blonde-haired officers and feed them to our fighting-cocks,” according to the London Sunday Times.

The article also named three missing Iranian officials, including Mr. Askari.

David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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