( LatWp ) - A diplomatic standoff between Britain and Iran over the capture last week of 15 British sailors and marines threatened to escalate Tuesday as an intense new round of diplomacy failed to end the crisis.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that his government is prepared to move to ``a different phase'' if Iran does not quickly release the 14 men and one woman being held since Friday for allegedly crossing into Iranian waterways.
But in Tehran, officials suggested that a speedy resolution could be difficult.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Ali Hosseini, said British consular officials in Tehran would gain access to the detainees only after a preliminary investigation determined whether troops had entered Iranian territory on purpose or by mistake.
One ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Britons were being held by conservative elements in the Revolutionary Guards, a parallel military organization born of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and were outside the normal channels of government. ``The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is put aside and the case is only in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards,'' he said. One Western diplomat said ministry officials did not know the exact whereabouts of the detainees.
A group of conservative students held a mock trial Tuesday for the 15 sailors and marines in the southern border town of Shalamcheh and called upon the government to put the ``aggressors'' on trial amid chants denouncing Britain, the United States and Israel.
Mohammed Javad Ali Akbari, one of Iran's vice presidents, attended the event, according to the ISNA news service.
``Why on Earth should we forgive the British transgressors,'' said Rafat Bayat, a hard-line member of Iran's parliament. ``Can anybody believe that the British naval forces got lost?''
In London, British officials continued to insist that their forces had been in Iraqi waters. ``There is absolutely no justification for holding'' the Britons, said Blair. ``I hope we manage to get them (the Iranians) to realize that they have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase.''
Blair did not define what he meant by a ``different phase,'' but a government spokesman who requested anonymity said the British leader was not referring to military action or an expulsion of diplomats. He said British officials were considering moving from quiet diplomacy to a more public confrontation, such as releasing evidence they believe proves that the two small British patrol boats captured in the Persian Gulf were operating in Iraqi waters, not Iranian.
``Patience is now wearing thin,'' the spokesman said. ``We've had four days now since British servicemen who were doing nothing wrong have been lifted, and we still don't have any idea where they are.''
Iranian officials brushed aside Blair's threat.
``Tony Blair used such empty rhetoric several times,'' said Rashid Jalali, parliamentary deputy who serves on the national security committee. ``We do not care what British officials say.''
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett cut short a visit to Turkey late Tuesday to return to London, and was scheduled to address Parliament Wednesday. The government convened its cabinet-level emergency response committee, known as COBRA, under the chairmanship of the minister of defense.
Iran's ambassador to London has been summoned for consultations to the Foreign Office three times since the arrests, and Beckett has lodged a personal appeal with her Iranian counterpart for information about the whereabouts of the detainees. British officials have sought permission for a consular visit to the detainees.
Hosseini, of the Foreign Ministry, said the detainees were in good condition. The lone woman, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, is having her privacy protected, he said.
The Britons were held over a weekend in which the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program, heightening the country's security worries. Many said they felt the country was besieged and should remain resilient.
``It is highly significant that at a time when Iran is under pressure by the West, the British government demonstrates a hostile attitude toward Iran,'' said Hamid Reza Haji Babaie, a conservative member of parliament. ``Therefore, we should take care and verify the motives of the intruders to our waters.''
Iran is likely sensitive about border incursions now because of recent bombings along its borders that Tehran believes were fomented in part by the U.S. and Britain, said Dan Plesch, an Iran expert at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.
``There appears to be a low-level border war going on between Iran and the coalition (in Iraq), if you look at the border from Kurdistan to Basra,'' Plesch said in an interview. ``The existence of this largely proxy border war is a very important and unnoticed part of the relations between the Iranians and the international community.''