Iran holds 5 Britons halted on yacht
Racing crew detained amid nuclear tensions
LONDON - Iran is holding five British sailors after stopping their racing yacht in the Persian Gulf, the British government said yesterday. The move could heighten tensions between Iran and major world powers, including Britain, that are demanding a halt to its nuclear program.
The yacht owned by Sail Bahrain was stopped on its way from the tiny island country to the Gulf city of Dubai on Wednesday when it “may have strayed inadvertently into Iranian waters,’’ Britain’s Foreign Office said.
Sail Bahrain’s website identified the yacht as the Kingdom of Bahrain and said it had been due to join the 360-mile Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race, which began Nov. 26.
The event was to be the boat’s first offshore race, the website said, adding that the vessel had been fitted with a satellite tracker.
Representatives of the racing boat’s owner could not immediately be reached.
Richard Schofield, a specialist on international boundaries in the Middle East at King’s College in London, said it was difficult to understand how the boat could have ended up in trouble with Iranian authorities.
“It’s hard to see why, on a regular journey from Bahrain to Dubai, they would have gone through Iranian territorial waters,’’ he said.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain said British officials had been in touch about the matter with their Iranian counterparts for nearly a week. It was not immediately clear why British officials had decided to publicize the case now.
“I hope this issue will soon be resolved,’’ Miliband said in the brief statement.
The statement added that the crew members “are still in Iran’’ and were “understood to be safe,’’ but did not specify where they were and what their legal status was. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said she was not in a position to elaborate.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry official said he was not aware of reports a British yacht had been stopped. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard has responsibility for protecting Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Officials from the Guard and from the regular navy could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Iran is holding three young Americans who strayed across the border from northern Iraq in July. The United States has appealed for their release, saying they were innocent hikers who accidentally crossed into Iran. Tehran has accused them of spying, a sign that they could be put on trial.
Fifteen British military personnel were detained in the Gulf by Iran under disputed circumstances in March 2007. Iran charged them with trespassing in its waters, and the Iranian government televised apologies by some of the captured crew.
All were eventually freed without an apology from Britain, which steadfastly insisted the crew members were taken in Iraqi waters, where they were authorized to be.
Schofield, of King’s College, said that Iran had a pattern of taking such action when it was feeling “a little defensive.’’
Iran’s nuclear chief said yesterday that UN criticism of its nuclear program had pushed his country to retaliate by announcing plans to build 10 more uranium enrichment facilities.
The International Atomic Energy Agency passed a resolution Friday demanding that Iran halt all enrichment activities.
Analysts said the announcement on the new plants, made Sunday by Tehran, is largely bluster after a strong rebuke from the UN’s nuclear agency. Nonetheless, the defiance is fueling calls among Western allies for new punitive sanctions to freeze Iran’s nuclear program.
US and European officials were swift to condemn the plans, warning that Iran risked sinking ever deeper into isolation.
Iran’s bold announcement appears to be largely impossible to achieve as long as sanctions continue to throw up roadblocks and force Iran to turn to black markets and smuggling for nuclear equipment, said nuclear analyst David Albright.
“They can’t build those plants. There’s no way,’’ he said. “They have sanctions to overcome, they have technical problems. They have to buy things overseas . . . and increasingly it’s all illegal.’’