Iran, Britain at Impasse over Captives

Iran says it will release 15 captive British sailors and marines, but only if Britain admits they trespassed in Iranian waters. Britain refuses to do so and has frozen further dealings with Tehran.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The dispute over 15 British sailors and marines detained by Iran comes down to who's willing to admit they were wrong.

Iran's foreign minister claims the situation can be resolved if Britain admits its personnel strayed into Iran's waters. Britain says there will not be such an admission because the British never crossed the dividing line. Iran has now released a video of the 15 detainees in which one of them speaks.

Ms. FAYE TURNEY (Detained British Sailor): They explained to us why we'd been arrested. There's no aggression, no hurt, no harm. They were very, very compassionate.

INSKEEP: That was Faye Turney, the only woman among the 15 Britons seized by Iran, seven days ago now. NPR's Rob Gifford is covering the story from London. And Rob, how've people, where you are, responded to that video?

ROB GIFFORD: Well, as you would imagine, the newspapers have all been expressing outrage, some suggesting that this breaches the Geneva Convention. That you're not allowed to parade captives like this. How dare they, screamed - The Sun Newspaper, the biggest mass circulation tabloid, Sick Mullahs Humiliate our Troops, was the subtitle on that one.

The Daily Mail said this humiliation shames Britain. And so, really, this is really building up a head of steam here in the press and in the public, but is putting a lot of pressure on Tony Blair and his government to really start to resolve it and to get those 15 personnel home to Britain.

INSKEEP: Well, amid all of that rhetoric is there any progress toward resolving the situation?

GIFFORD: Well, the problem at the moment is, as you suggested, that the Iranian foreign minister late last night suggested that Britain has to admit that it strayed into Iranian territory, into Iranian waters. And all day yesterday, the British government was producing evidence that further proved, that it already insisted that the boats were in Iraqi waters.

But that yesterday, they gave the satellite coordinates and everything to say that they did not stray into Iranian waters. So we have a bit of a standoff here and we have a lot of mixed messages, as well, coming from Iran. The foreign minister yesterday in Saudi Arabia suggested that Faye Turney, the woman you just heard, would be released either yesterday or today.

He suggested that this could be resolved because it could easily have been a mistake, that the British crossed the line and then he immediately went harder line later in the day. So clearly there's some dispute in Tehran how - as to how to actually deal with these 15 Britons.

INSKEEP: Rob, you can imagine the time in history when Britain was a greater world power and you might imagine British officials insisting that this a blow to their prestige and they might even take military action. That's in the past, though. What options are available to Prime Minister Tony Blair today?

GIFFORD: Yes. I think military action is really not being discussed at the moment. And this is really the problem. What can Tony Blair do? He has to talk tough at home. He has to talk very tough, because as I say, the pressure is building. But I think at the same time, he's working very, very hard behind the scenes in what is a very delicate diplomatic situation.

And I think he realizes that the only way to resolve this really is through diplomatic channels. There are other people involved, other countries. The Turkish prime minister said that he had raised the issue yesterday with the Iranian foreign minister. And so, I think, what they're trying to do - Tony Blair is trying to balance this. Talk tough at home while desperately trying to work out a diplomatic solution to the whole problem.

INSKEEP: Rob, good listening to you.

GIFFORD: Thanks very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Gifford in London on the seventh day of the standoff between Britain and Iran over the detention of 15 British sailors and Marines.

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