- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Tehran warned on Tuesday that it will take strong action against five detained British sailors if it is proven they had “bad intentions” when their racing yacht entered Iran’s Persian Gulf waters and was seized.

The detention could heighten tensions between Iran and major world powers, including Britain, that are demanding a halt to Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.

London rushed to keep the incident from getting tangled up in the two nations’ disputes — wary of how political tensions have snarled attempts to free three Americans arrested by Iran this summer after they strayed across the border from Iraq, reportedly by accident during a hike.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said “there is certainly no question of any malicious intent on the part of these five young people.”

Britain says the yacht, called Kingdom of Bahrain, drifted inadvertently into Iranian waters while en route from Bahrain to a race off Dubai when Iranian forces stopped it Wednesday.

“This is a human story … It’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s got nothing to do with the nuclear enrichment program,” Miliband said.

“We are keen this be resolved as soon as possible,” he said, telling reporters that London has been in touch with Iranian authorities since the seizure.

The seizure could also flare up the longtime rivalry between Iran and Bahrain, since the 60-foot yacht was the pride of a high-profile racing program sponsored by the tiny island nation’s king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Bahrain contacted Iranian authorities, telling them the entry into Iranian waters was unintentional and asking for the crew’s release, Foreign Ministry official Youssef Ahmed said, according to the state news agency.

But the head of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s office said Iran will prosecute the Britons if they intended to “violate the national security” of Iran.

“Naturally if bad intentions on the part of these individuals are proven, there will be a serious and strong attitude toward them,” Esfandiar Rahim Mashai said, according to the Fars news agency. “The decision will be up to the judiciary, which is independent from the administration.”

The five were detained by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, Fars reported. The Guard, which runs its own naval forces, has the responsibility of protecting Iran’s Persian Gulf waters. The Guard’s navy chief, Gen. Ali Reza Tangsiri, said that if the five were stopped in the Gulf it would be by the Guard — though he did not confirm the detention.

It isn’t the first time Iran has detained British sailors. In 2007, Iran seized 15 British military personnel in the Gulf, claiming they had entered Iranian waters, though Britain insisted they were taken in Iraqi waters where they were authorized to be. The Iranian government televised apologies by some of the captured crew — but eventually all were freed without an apology from Britain.

But the new incident takes place at a time of greater tumult within Iran. Since disputed presidential elections in June, the Revolutionary Guard has been cracking down fiercely on the Iranian opposition, claiming they are part of a Western plot to overthrow the clerical regime.

That appears to have translated into an even stronger anti-Western feeling among authorities. Iran has taken a tough line over the three Americans detained in July, who the United States says were innocent hikers who mistakenly entered Iran. Tehran has accused them of espionage — a sign that they could be put on trial.

Iran’s state news agency IRNA said hard-line students plan to protest at Britain’s embassy in Tehran on Wednesday against “the illegal trespassing.” In a sign of how the situation could become politicized, the students will also demand the repatriation of Arash Hejazi, an Iranian doctor who tried to save Neda Agha Soltan, a student who was shot during postelection protests and became an icon of the reform movement. Hejazi is studying at Oxford and was visiting Iran at the time. Iranian authorities have been seeking Hejazi’s return.

Miliband insisted that the five Britons were civilians who “were going about their sport,” saying, “we look forward to the Iranian government dealing with this promptly,” he said.

The Kingdom of Bahrain yacht had been heading to join the 580-kilometer (360-mile) Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race, which was to begin Nov. 26, according to the Web site of its owner Sail Bahrain. The event was to be the boat’s first offshore race, the Web site said, adding that the vessel had been fitted with a satellite tracker.

British media identified the five as Oliver Smith, Sam Usher, of Scarborough, North Yorkshire; Luke Porter, of Weston-super-Mare; Oliver Young, of from Saltash, near Plymouth; and David Bloomer, from Malahide, county Dublin. Bloomer, a Bahrain-based radio presenter who was due to air broadcasts about the race, was travelling with a British passport but is believed to have dual British-Irish citizenship.

The families of several of the sailors said they had been able to speak to them by phone since their detention. Charles Porter, father of Luke Porter, said he had talked to his son on Monday and “he was as good as can be expected.”

“He is a very strong character, very resilient. He’s a professional sailor, very used to dealing with adversity.”

The boat’s seizure is also a snub to Bahrain, which has long had a tense relationship with its larger neighbor across the Gulf.

Sail Bahrain is a partnership between the tiny island kingdom and Team Pindar, a prominent independent yachting team — and it was the flagship of an attempt to enter the lucrative yachting world by Bahrain, which has long sought to establish itself as a financial and sporting force. Past Bahraini new reports about the vessel touted it as “the royal yacht,” and video on the Sail Bahrain Web site showed it flying a large Bahraini flag, with the name King Hamad on its hull.

Associated Press Writers Jennifer Quinn in London and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.

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