British Prime Minister: Next 2 days with Iran are crucial

( AP ) - The next two days are "fairly critical" to resolving the dispute over a seized British navy crew, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday, after Iran's chief international negotiator offered a new approach to end the standoff with Tehran.

"The next 48 hours will be fairly critical," Blair told Scotland's Real Radio. He said Ali Larijani's suggestion of talks offered hope of an end to the crisis. "If they want to resolve this in a diplomatic way the door is open," the prime minister said.

Earlier, Iran's chief international negotiator said his country wanted to resolve the standoff over 15 detained British sailors through diplomacy and he saw no need to put the crew on trial.

The British government responded to Ali Larijani by saying that both it and Iran had a "shared desire to make early progress" in resolving the dispute.

The quieter tone from both capitals Monday raised hopes the 11-day standoff might be solved soon. But optimistic signs emerged before, only to be followed by a hardening of positions and tough rhetoric.

"There remain some differences between us, but we can confirm we share his preference for early bilateral discussions to find a diplomatic solution to this problem," a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said speaking anonymously in line with government policy.

Iran's priority "is to solve the problem through proper diplomatic channels," Larijani told Britain's Channel 4 television news. "We are not interested in letting this issue get further complicated."

And he called for all involved to stop using "the language of force." Last week Larijani had suggested the captives might be tried for allegedly intruding into Iranian waters.

The Iranian capital, Tehran, was quiet Monday - a day after hundreds of students hurled firecrackers and rocks at the British Embassy, chanting "death to Britain" and calling for the expulsion of the country's ambassador because of the standoff.

Earlier Monday, an Iranian state-run television station said all 15 of the detained Royal Navy personnel had confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters before they were captured.

However, Iranian state-run radio said the confessions would not be broadcast because of what it called "positive changes" in the negotiating stance of Britain, whose leaders have been angered by the airing of videos of the captives.

The radio did not elaborate on the supposed changes by the British. But in London, a British official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had agreed to consider ways to avoid such situations in the future.

The official insisted Britain was not negotiating with the Iranians and still wanted the captives freed unconditionally.

The eight sailors and seven marines were detained March 23 by naval units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards while the Britons patrolled for smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran.

Iran says the team was in Iranian waters. Britain insists it was in Iraqi waters working under a U.N. mandate.

Iran has previously demanded an apology from Britain as a condition for the sailors' release.

Echoing an Iranian legislator, Larijani suggested a British delegation visit Tehran "to review the case, to clarify the case, first of all - to clarify whether they have been in our territorial waters at all."

Over the weekend, The Sunday Telegraph of London said Britain was considering sending a senior Royal Navy officer to Tehran to discuss the return of the captives as well as to talk about ways to avoid future incidents.

Larijani also urged Britain to guarantee "that such violation will not be repeated," but avoided repeating Tehran's demand for an apology. British leaders have insisted they have nothing to apologize for.

The comments suggested the sides were seeking a face-facing formula in which each could argue its interests were upheld while the captives could go free. Under such a formula, Iran could claim Britain tacitly acknowledged the border area is in dispute, and Britain could maintain it never apologized.

A generation ago, such a formula helped free Americans held by Tehran for 444 days. The United States pledged not to interfere in Iranian affairs, enabling the hostage takers to claim they had achieved their goal.

The renewed diplomatic efforts between Iran and Britain followed tough rhetoric last week that prompted both governments to dig in their heels.

Britain suspended all other diplomatic contacts with Iran, froze work to support trade missions and stopped issuing visas to Iranian diplomats. It also sought help from the U.N. and other countries, including Muslim Turkey, to press Iran to free the captives.

Those moves prompted Iran to suspend plans to free the only woman captive, sailor Faye Turney, and to suggest the Britons might face trial.

To reinforce their claims, the Iranians also broadcast video footage that showed four of the crew saying they were captured in Iranian waters. In footage Sunday, two of the sailors used maps to show the purported location where they were seized.

Britain has released its own maps and GPS coordinates showing the captured team's location to be in Iraqi waters.

The videos enraged British officials, who said the broadcast confessions were clearly made under duress.

"The Iranians know our position. They know that stage-managed TV appearances are not going to affect our position," Blair's official spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "They know we have strong international support."

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