TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) -An Iranian diplomat in Iraq seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen has been released, Iran reported Tuesday, while in Baghdad a senior foreign ministry official said his government was “intensively” seeking the release of five Iranians detained there by the U.S.
The developments came as British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the next two days would be “fairly critical” to resolving the dispute over a British navy crew seized by Iran.
The Iraqi official also said Iraq had exerted pressure on those holding the Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who was released Monday and returned to Tehran on Tuesday. The official would not say who had custody of the diplomat.
A senior government official, however, said Iraqi intelligence had held the Iranian diplomat. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Sharafi was seized on Feb. 4 when his car was intercepted by vehicles carrying armed men in the Karradah district of Baghdad. The gunmen, who wore Iraqi uniforms, forced him into one of their vehicles and sped away.
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency confirmed Sharafi’s release but gave no indication of the circumstances surrounding his Feb. 4 disappearance or his release. In January, the U.S. military seized five Iranians in a raid in northern Iraq, accusing them of links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard faction that funds and arms insurgents and militias in Iraq.
Two days after the raid, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said President Bush approved the strategy of raiding Iranian targets in Iraq as part of efforts to confront the government in Tehran.
Iran had insisted that the five detained Iranians were engaged exclusively in consular work.
“We are intensively seeking the release of the five Iranians,” the Iraqi foreign ministry official said. “This will be a factor that will help in the release of the British sailors and marines.”
An official at the Iranian embassy confirmed Sharafi’s release, but said he did not know who was responsible for freeing him: “He was kidnapped and I don’t have further details,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and commented only on condition of anonymity.
The developments come amid signs that Britain and Iran were seeking to resolve the dispute over the seized British crew.
Iran maintains the British sailors had encroached on Iranian territory and that it had no intention of offering to swap them for Iranians held in Iraq. Britain insists its service members were in Iraqi waters and has demanded their unconditional release.
The chief Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, told Britain’s Channel 4 news Monday through an interpreter that Iranian officials “definitely believe that this issue can be resolved and there is no need for any trial.”
Blair told Scotland’s Real Radio that if Iran wants to resolve the standoff with diplomacy, “the door is open.”
Britain had two options, Blair said.
“One is to try settle this by way of peaceful and calm negotiation to get our people back as quickly as possible,” he said. “The other is to make it clear that if that is not possible that we have to take an increasingly tougher position.”
The 15 British sailors and marines were captured by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf on March 23. They were detained while patrolling for smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran.
On Monday, 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 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 Britain was not negotiating with the Iranians and still wanted the captives freed unconditionally.
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 they have no reason to apologize.
The comments suggested the sides were seeking a face-facing formula in which each could argue its interests were upheld while the captives could go free. Under such a formula, Iran could claim Britain tacitly acknowledged 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 claim they had achieved their goal.