LONDON (Reuters) - Britain sought international help to isolate Iran on Thursday in a standoff over the capture of 15 military personnel, while Iran threatened to delay the release of the only woman detainee if London created a “fuss.”
Britain is seeking approval from the U.N. Security Council for a statement deploring last week’s detention of the sailors. The dispute has stoked Middle East tensions and sent shockwaves through the oil market.
Government sources said Britain would discuss practical steps of support at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting this weekend, but a senior Iranian official said Tehran could delay the planned release of the only woman detained.
“We even said that the grounds were ready for the release of a woman among the British sailors but if we are faced with a fuss and wrong behavior then this would be suspended and it would not take place,” Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told state television.
The capture of the British sailors at a time of heightened tension with Iran over its nuclear program helped pushed oil prices to six-month highs on concerns that any escalation could hit crucial oil supplies from the Gulf.
Britain, which froze all business ties with Iran on Wednesday and has been at the forefront of the campaign to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, said it was not seeking confrontation with Tehran and wanted the situation resolved quickly.
“We have widened the net of arguing our case. First of all we’ve brought in the EU. Today we’re doing so at the U.N.,” Blair’s official spokesman said. “We expect further developments soon in the context of the U.N.”
Britain has halted all official travel between the UK and Iran and suspended visa issuing and support for trade missions. Western partners have not taken specific actions but leaders in Washington and the European Union voiced strong support.
A government source said Britain would be discussing what further practical support there might be from both the United Nations and the European Union.
“I think it initially would mean other nations taking the step that (Prime Minister Tony) Blair said yesterday about having no bilateral dealings with Iran until this is resolved,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It wouldn’t require them to cut off trade with Iran or other steps that would impinge on economic relations. Stopping official contacts in solidarity with Britain would be straightforward,” he said.
“FACING DOWN INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY”
The United Nations hit Iran with sanctions at the weekend to try and stop its nuclear program while Washington and London blame Iran for backing insurgents battling their forces in Iraq.
“This is not just a UK-Iran spat. This is Iran facing down a good deal of the international community,” the British government source said.
Britain raised the diplomatic stakes on Wednesday by publishing what it says is proof the Royal Navy sailors and marines were captured within Iraqi waters, where they were carrying out routine operations under a U.N. mandate.
Tehran insists the British forces had strayed into Iranian territorial waters and angered many in Britain by releasing video of the only woman crew member captured, wearing a black headscarf and smoking a cigarette.
Britain said parading the female sailor, Faye Turney, and other captured British personnel, was completely unacceptable and it fears the sailors may have been coerced into appearing.
The United States has called Iran’s behavior “reprehensible” and “odious.”
In Tehran, a small group of demonstrators outside the foreign ministry called for the sailors to be executed as spies.
Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter, has said Britain must accept its crew was arrested in Iranian waters. It said on Thursday the woman would be freed as soon as possible.
Additional reporting by Katherine Baldwin, Paul Majendie, Janet McBride in London and Edmund Blair in Tehran