LONDON -- The Iranian prisoner crisis revealed a widening schism between Britain and the United States yesterday as U.S. leaders called for tough action and British officials confirmed that they are trying to free their 15 imprisoned sailors by quietly reaching a compromise with Tehran.British officials believe that Iran is not seeking a prisoner exchange or other further bounty in exchange for the sailors, who have been imprisoned for 10 days, and they are hoping the crisis can be resolved peacefully in the next few days.
As two more British sailors were shown last night in another Iranian broadcast reading confessions and a small crowd of radical students in Tehran threw rocks and firecrackers at the British embassy there, British diplomats exchanged letters with the Iranian foreign ministry seeking a conciliatory end to the standoff.
Officials in London said that they believe their "confidence-building" operations, in which they offer to guarantee the Iranian government that British vessels will not stray into Iranian waters, offer the best hope of winning the freedom of the sailors and marines who have been in custody since they were seized by Iran's Republican Guards on March 23. Iran says the sailors had strayed into Iranian waters. Britain says they remained in Iraqi waters, where they are allowed to operate in support of the war in Iraq.
"We are anxious that this matter be resolved as quickly as possible, and that it be resolved by diplomatic means, and we are bending every single effort to that. . . . We are in direct bilateral communication with the Iranians," British Defence Minister Des Browne told reporters yesterday.
But Britain's delicate diplomatic efforts were set back by U.S. President George W. Bush, who made a statement Saturday in which he characterized the imprisoned sailors as "hostages" -- a phrase that Britain has been carefully avoiding to prevent the crisis from becoming a broader political or military conflict.
"The British hostages issue is a serious issue because the Iranians took these people out of Iraqi waters, and it's inexcusable behaviour," Mr. Bush said in response to a reporter's question during a press conference at the Camp David retreat.
He had reportedly promised not to raise the issue of the sailors, as British officials worry that the entry of the United States into this crisis could cause it to escalate into an irreconcilable confrontation.
Other U.S. officials have been even less amenable to the British approach. John Bolton, who until recently was Mr. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, has appeared on British TV describing the British approach as "pathetic."
Mr. Bush stressed that the United States would not turn over Iranian officials it had arrested in Iraq earlier this year on accusations that they were supporting insurgents, saying he supported Prime Minister Tony Blair's view that "there were no quid pro quos. The Iranians must give back the hostages. They're innocent, they were doing nothing, and they were summarily plucked out of water."
But British officials say that a prisoner exchange has never been offered or suggested by Iran, and that Mr. Bush's words could cause harm by putting the Iranians in a position from which they cannot back down if it becomes a major confrontation with their long-time enemy, the United States.
British negotiators believe the Iranians have already won all the rewards they have been seeking -- mainly by using several of the hostages for propaganda purposes by broadcasting videos and letters in which they admit, possibly under duress, to trespassing on Iranian territory and demand that their government withdraw from Iraq.
British officials are said to believe that a hard-line group of Republican Guards has been controlling the prisoners, possibly with the backing of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but that the imprisonment lacks a political goal beyond the humiliation of Britain and its allies, and that more moderate parties, including Iran's "supreme leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are not interested in a prolonged standoff, like the 444-day 1979 U.S. hostage crisis, that would isolate Iran.
Ayatollah Khamenei has not yet spoken publicly on this crisis, and there are some observers in Iran who believe that he has abandoned his support for Mr. Ahmadinejad over the way the President's radically anti-Western gestures have distanced Iran from the rest of the world and damaged the economy.
Iran's government is deeply divided into factions and parties, which often control their own police, justice systems and wings in the major prisons. British officials and many Iranian observers believe that Mr. Ahmadinejad's more radical supporters are unlikely to prevail in this dispute since it offers few opportunities for gain. Iranian media have reported that moderate factions, including some leaders in the Republican Guards, have advocated the release of the prisoners.
Many observers noted that most Iranians have been on their country's New Year's vacation since the crisis began. Newspapers have not been publishing there, more moderate Foreign Ministry officials have not been in their offices, and the Revolutionary Guards have had a monopoly on the issue in a holiday period that will end tomorrow.
"It's the Supreme Leader who has to make the ultimate decision," said Mehrdad Khansari of London's Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies. "He has allowed each faction to air its grievances, present its positions. . . . He has heard from the moderates -- I mean, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards has expressed a desire for releasing these people -- whereas other groups within the Revolutionary Guards have expressed a harder position."
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