Iran Signals Softer Stance on British Captives Iran says it will seek to determine whether the 15 British soldiers and marines it has detained intentionally crossed into Iranian waters. It's a signal that Iran is softening its stance in a standoff with Britain, which insists the military personnel were in Iraqi waters when captured.
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Iran Signals Softer Stance on British Captives

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Iran Signals Softer Stance on British Captives

Iran Signals Softer Stance on British Captives

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It's been five days since Iran detained 15 British sailors and marines in Persian Gulf waters, and tensions between London and Tehran are rising. There continues to be disagreement over where the Britons were seized on Friday. Iran insists they were operating in Iranian waters, while Britain says they were off the coast of Iraq. Joining us now for an update is Financial Times reporter Garrett Smith in Tehran.


Mr. GARRETT SMITH (Reporter, Financial Times): Hello. Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Iran isn't saying where the Britons are being held, only that they're being questioned, right?

Mr. SMITH: That's correct. They called British ambassador yesterday that they were fit and well, and in Iran. There were no more specifics. And they also didn't agree to the British request to have access to the detainees.

MONTAGNE: Is there a belief that Iran seized these men and one woman for use as some sort of a bargaining chip?

Mr. SMITH: Well, that was denied yesterday by Mehdi Mostafavi, the deputy foreign minister. He was quoted by state television are saying there was no link between these 15 detainees and the five Iranians, you will remember, being held by American forces in Iraq since January.

MONTAGNE: Which was what the idea was, that perhaps they were looking to have them exchanged for those five Iranians.

Mr. SMITH: Well, everything's in suggestion in some conservative circles here, conservative Web sites, that Iran should try and trade the 15 British detainees for the five Iranians being held by the U.S. in Iraq. It seems that the foreign ministry has now ruled that out.

MONTAGNE: Okay. Then, might there be a connection to U.N. Security Council sanctions over Iran's nuclear enrichment program?

Mr. SMITH: It's still to rule out any connection with any aspect of the regional situation, including the nuclear program. But also, it's very hard to state and prove that there is any connection. I mean Iran is usually playing its cards very close to its chest, and there maybe different actors in the rather complex political scene Iran has, who are playing a rather different game.

The Iranian foreign ministry seems to be taking a fairly conciliatory tone in the British, with the meetings, what the British called a businesslike tone. Whereas, the Iranian revolutionary guards, who are holding the 15 detainees, that's where people are more so, are more concerned, more angry about the detention of the Iranians in Iraq. I think we have to assume, though, that there has been some coordination on the Iranian side, probably in the Supreme National Security Council.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. And, you know, in 2004, Iran detained another group of British marines and sailors, and they were presented on TV blindfolded. They're in Iran. They were released, ultimately, unharmed. Is it - could one might expect a similar outcome this time around?

Mr. SMITH: It's difficult now what to expect. And I talked to a couple of well-placed Iranian analysts yesterday, and they said that they still see this as a fairly low-key incident, a local incident, but they think that it could go on for another seven to 10 days before it's resolved. Now, I think that means the real question is can the British politically wait for seven to 10 days for this matter to be resolved.

I think the British foreign office, and certainly the embassy here in Tehran, is saying keep calm, let's not blow this up. If we blow this up into a big incident that will convince the Iranians these people are rather more important than they really are.

But at the same time, there's a lot of political pressure building up in Britain, where the media is running headlines about hostages and so on. There's a lot of political pressure on Tony Blair to do something.

Now, the question then is what can the British do? What can the British do to up the ante? It seems that what they are likely to do in the coming...

MONTAGNE: Garrett, we're - thank you. We're out of time. Thank you, Garrett Smith, reporting for the Financial Times in Tehran. It's NPR News.

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