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Britain Says Next 48 Hours Critical For Iran Standoff

April 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran and Britain have reportedly been in contact in an attempt to resolve the row over the capture of 15 British navy personnel by Iranian forces.

Iran's top security official, Ali Larijani, has said that talks could help find a solution to the 11-day standoff, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the next two days would be "fairly critical" to resolving the dispute.

Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told Iranian state media today that the British government has started diplomatic contacts with Iran's Foreign Ministry.

He said that if Britain continued on the "path" of negotiations and recognized its "error," the whole dispute could be brought to a conclusion through bilateral contacts.

'No Need' For Trial

On April 2, Larijani gave an interview to British television in an apparent attempt to calm the dispute created by the capture of the 15 marines and sailors accused of entering Iranian waters on March 23.

Larijani said in the interview that there was "no need" to put the group on trial, and added that the standoff was "quite resolvable."

In an apparent response to Larijani's interview, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today that the Iranian official's suggestion of talks offered hope of an end to the crisis.

Blair, speaking to journalists in Glasgow, added that "the door is open" for a diplomatic solution, which remains "the best way" out of the crisis.

"We hope very much that the Iranian government realizes that the best way to deal with this is in a diplomatic way in order to get those people released," he said.

Blair also said that the next two days are "fairly critical" to resolving the dispute.

He cautioned that, while Britain remains committed to diplomacy, it may adopt a tougher stance if necessary.

"All the way through, we have had, if you like, two very clear tracks on this: one is to try and settle this by way of peaceful and calm negotiation to get our people back as quickly as possible," Blair explained. "The other is to make it clear that if that's not possible, then we have to take an increasingly tougher position."

Meanwhile, Britain's Foreign Office today stressed that no new negotiations had begun, but that talks started earlier were continuing with a "more positive feel."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called on the two sides to seek ways to ease the tension.

"I would hope that this rhetoric should be toned down, which is not desirable in helping resolve this issue," Ban said. "As the secretary-general, I would again hope that we would be able to see some early release of these U.K. sailors."

In Tehran, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported that Iranian First Vice President Parviz Davoudi has said the release of the British personnel depended on how Britain behaves. Davoudi said the row could be solved "logically if London accepts its sailors and marines entered Iran illegally."

President Cancels Presser

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad postponed a news conference that had been scheduled for today.

The Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry said in a statement that the conference was delayed for 24 hours "based on journalists' request." It was not immediately clear who were the journalists who had requested the delay.

Earlier, an official from the presidential office said there was "a high possibility" that it would be held on April 4.

Iran seized the 15 British naval personnel as they were carrying out a routine anti-smuggling check on a freighter in the Gulf.

Britain says the group's Global Positioning System (GPS) device showed it was in Iraqi waters at the time.

But Iran says the same GPS device shows the group intruded on Iranian waters and so violated Iraq's sovereignty.

Both sides have said they want bilateral talks to resolve the issue.

The crisis has come at a difficult time for Tehran's relations with the West, with the United States refusing to rule out military action over the Iranian nuclear program, and the United Nations imposing new sanctions against Tehran.


Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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