LONDON (AFP) – Britain was set to offer evidence Wednesday that 15 of its sailors and marines held by Iran were wrongly seized in Iraqi waters, reports said, raising the stakes in the mounting standoff with Tehran.
The BBC reported that the government was ready to switch from private to public diplomacy, after Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Tuesday that negotiations would enter a “different phase” if diplomacy reached a dead end.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was to brief parliament on the stand-off after cutting short a visit to Turkey, having got nowhere in talks with her Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki.
Britain insists that the eight sailors and seven marines held by Iran were conducting “routine” anti-smuggling operations when they were seized at gunpoint in the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the north of the Gulf on Friday.
Iran says they had intruded into Iranian waters, though that claim is contested by Iraq.
The Ministry of Defence would not confirm BBC reports that they were about to publish satellite images and other evidence showing that the British service personnel were within Iraqi waters.
The Guardian newspaper said that was to include maps, detailed co-ordinates, and photographs.
The plan to put the British case in the public domain would only change if Iran gives British diplomats consular access to the military personnel, the daily said.
The Foreign Office could not say when Beckett would update parliament. Blair faced his weekly grilling from MPs at midday (1100 GMT).
Beckett unexpectedly curtailed her Turkey trip after speaking to Mottaki in “very robust terms,” according to a Foreign Office spokesman.
Blair’s official spokesman said Tuesday that Britain was “utterly certain” that the sailors were in Iraqi waters.
“So far, we haven’t made explicit why we know that because we don’t want to escalate this,” he said, adding that Britain preferred quiet diplomacy.
But he added: “We may come to the stage where we have to become more explicit about why we know this.”
Blair’s spokesman insisted Tuesday that London was not looking to escalate the stand-off and Britain was not considering military action or throwing out Iran’s ambassador.
However in Tehran, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini denounced the British remarks.
“The media campaigns and provocative … remarks regarding the violation of Iranian territorial waters by the British sailors are doing nothing to help settle the affair,” he said.
Citing unnamed sources, the BBC said the British miltary personnel were being grilled at a Revolutionary Guards base in Tehran to find out if they were on an intelligence-gathering mission.
BBC reports also said that hardliners surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reckon the 15 could be useful pawns, either to trade for five Iranians being held by US forces in Iraq or for concessions over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Salah Al-Shaikhly, Iraq’s ambassador to London, said Baghdad would do what it could to resolve the situation.
“We can be of some help. Wwe have good relations with the Iranian government,” he told BBC radio.
The European Union has demanded the sailors’ release and the United States has expressed its “concern and outrage.”
The crisis over the detentions comes as tensions also rise over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme.
The stand-off also contributed to a rise in oil prices.
They rallied in Asian trade, touching a six-month high in a market jittery over Iran’s nuclear intentions and the country’s detention of 15 British military personnel, dealers said.
At 0619 GMT, New York’s main oil futures contract, light sweet crude for delivery in May, was up 98 cents at 63.91 dollars a barrel from 62.93 dollars in late US trades.
Brent North Sea crude for May was up 1.18 dollars at 65.78 dollars.