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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The diplomatic standoff between Iran and Great Britain over 15 captured sailors continues. Iran is threatening to put the sailors on trial, saying that they illegally entered Iranian waters eight days ago.

NPR's Rob Gifford has been following developments from London and joins us. Rob, thanks for being with us.

ROB GIFFORD: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And these diplomatic notes have been flying back and forth between London and Tehran. Where do things stand now?

GIFFORD: Well, they have. Yes, in fact there have been two significant developments today. First of all, the British foreign secretary, at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Bremen, Germany, says that she has written a letter back to the Iranian government in response to their first written communication, which was received yesterday. And she spoke to reporters and said, so we are now beginning to discuss now if that's really true. And they're only now beginning to discuss - some eight days after the sailors and marines were taken; that does seem to have been quite a delay. But it does suggest that the diplomatic channels are flowing a bit more freely now.

The second development is that the Iranian ambassador to Moscow is quoted on an Iranian state news agency saying that the Britons, the 15 Britons, may face trial for illegally entering Iran's territorial waters. And he actually suggested that legal action had already begun. So if that's true and if that's confirmed, that of course is another significant development as well.

SIMON: That could significantly step up the urgency of the situation, couldn't it? Because when there were some British service people that were taken - was it in 2004, I believe - they were not put on trial.

GIFFORD: No, that's right. And in fact they were only detained, I think, for about three days before they were released. Obviously the international situation now is a lot more serious. We have everything that's going on in the U.N. Security Council regarding Iran's nuclear program. Just last weekend the Security Council voted to increase the number of sanctions on the Iran for what it said was Tehran's lack of cooperation on that front. So the situation is slightly different and certainly the atmosphere between the two sides has deteriorated.

So I think there is definitely a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that we don't see, but on the surface I think both sides are really talking very tough. And many people, I think, feel they've actually boxed themselves into something of a corner here.

SIMON: European Union has come out in support of Britain. Of course Britain's a member of the European Union but is often considered to be the principal ally, is the principal ally of the United States. Any diplomatic help from that direction?

GIFFORD: I think the feeling here is that help from the European Union is going to be more helpful than help from the United States. The EU does have a lot more contacts with Iran than the U.S. does. And in fact the EU has a lot of trade links and there's a lot of business goes back and forth between countries like Germany and Iran. And one of the things that's been suggested is that those countries, European countries, could do a lot more and could really start to squeeze Iran economically, and that that would help the British side to really put more pressure onto the Tehran government.

SIMON: NPR's Rob Gifford in London. Thank you.

GIFFORD: Thanks very much, Scott.

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