Iran threatens detained British sailors

Iran detained British sailors who were delivering a yacht, owned by Sail Bahrain, to Dubai. Iran has said it might take 'serious measures' against the five civilians.

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Iran threatened Tuesday to take "serious measures" against the five Britons detained in the Persian Gulf, deepening tensions that are already running high after international confrontation over Iran's nuclear program.

The five civilians were stopped by Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels on Nov. 25 while on their way to Dubai to deliver the yacht, the "Kingdom of Bahrain," for the Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race. The new development comes after Iran announced Sunday its plan to significantly expand its nuclear program, an apparent response to the IAEA's censure of Iran for failing to stop enriching uranium.

In comments Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's chief of staff seemed to suggest that the five men could face legal action, reports Reuters.

"The judiciary will decide about the five...naturally our measures will be hard and serious if we find out they had evil intentions," Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, the president's chief of staff, told the semi-official Fars news agency.

Meanwhile, Britain has attempted to keep the crisis from escalating, with Foreign Secretary David Miliband playing down the severity of the incident.

"There is certainly no confrontation or argument. […] We understand that the Iranian government are investigating the incident, which is perfectly reasonable, and then we would look forward to it being promptly sorted out," Miliband said.

He sought to dampen any comparison with March 2007, when 15 British Navy personnel from the HMS Cornwall were detained by Iran, which accused them of straying into Iranian waters. The sailors were paraded in front of television cameras before being released two weeks later as a "gift" to Britain from Mr. Ahmadinejad. Similarly, in July, three Americans were detained after straying into Iran while hiking in Iraq. They have been charged with espionage, which can carry a death sentence in Iran.

Iran also detained eight British Royal Navy sailors in 2004.

The five Britons detained last week may have drifted into Iranian waters after having some difficulty with the propeller of their craft, reports The Times of London. But the newspaper reports the yacht, owned by Sail Bahrain, was boarded twice. The first time, Iranians confiscated the yacht's navigation computers before releasing the crew. At this point, the yacht's engine reportedly broke down. Before the crew could arrange to be towed to Dubai, the Iranians boarded the yacht a second time and detained the crew, according to the paper.

Although the precise sequence of events remains unclear, it appears that the original decision by the Iranians to let the yacht continue on its passage to Dubai may have been overruled after its diplomatic value to Iran had been assessed.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the incident is in keeping with Iran's suspicion and dislike of Britain. But the yacht's connection to the kingdom of Bahrain could complicate Iran's plans to use the incident as a diplomatic bargaining chip with Britain.

The ... crew members of the King of Bahrain may ultimately be released, as the 15 sailors and marines of HMS Cornwall were in 2007. But in the meantime, the Iranian government, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in person, can be expected to milk the crisis for any advantage they can find. […]
The only unknown quantity is the involvement of the Bahraini authorities. Sail Bahrain is a joint venture with the Bahraini authorities, and it is possible that the yacht itself legally belongs to the King.
There is historic animosity between Shia Iran and the Sunni Muslim Gulf monarchs. Iran historically claimed sovereignty over Bahrain, which itself fears the country's influence over its majority Shia population.
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