Tehran warned yesterday of possible "hard and serious" measures against the British crew of a Bahraini yacht seized in Iranian waters. Officials in London are concerned that the regime in Tehran might use the four sailors and a journalist, detained one week ago when their yacht drifted into Iranian waters en route to Dubai from Bahrain, as pawns in the escalating row over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, went out of his way to stress that there was "no confrontation or argument" with Tehran over the incident and said that "perfectly good discussions" were taking place". He added: "It's got nothing to do with politics. It's got nothing to do with Iran's nuclear enrichment programme." British officials, however, were concerned about a statement from Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, that the detention of the Britons was a matter for judiciary.
"Naturally, our measures will be hard and serious if we find out they had evil intentions," he told the semi-official Fars news agency in Tehran. Last night, however, statements in Iran led to confusion over the sailors' fate. The Farda news portal, which is associated with Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a former Revolutionary Guards' commander, quoted "informed sources" as saying the sailors would be freed within hours.
Within an hour, however, Khabar Online, another Iranian news portal, quoted a foreign ministry source as dismissing the suggestion of an imminent release. For their part, officials in both the Gulf and Britain were busily dismissing any suggestion that the intentions of the Britons aboard the 18-metre yacht Kingdom of Bahrain were evil. The four crew members, who were all professional sailors with Team Pindar, one of the world's leading independent sailing teams, set sail from Bahrain last week with David Bloomer, a veteran Bahrain radio reporter, on board.
Professional sailors Oliver Smith, 31, Oliver Young, 21, Sam Usher, 26, and Luke Porter, 21, were taking the yacht as a late entry to compete in last weekend's 580km, Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race. But the boat encountered problems when, according to Keith Mutch, general manager of the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (DOSC), it lost its propeller as it headed down the Gulf last Wednesday morning.
The crew radioed ahead asking for a new propeller to be made ready for collection in Dubai. The reason they resorted to the yacht's auxiliary engine, apparently, was because they had become becalmed in light winds. Louay Habib, a spokesman for DOSC, told the BBC that the Kingdom of Bahrain shore crew had reported "there was no wind at the time, and they told us that they were organising for a tow to come and get them".
Mr Habib added: "It's purely speculation, but they would have probably been drifting. In 10 hours, they could well have strayed into Iranian waters." Team Pindar said in a statement yesterday that the Volvo 60 racing yacht, part of the fleet for the recently inaugurated Sail Bahrain project - which is intended to attract leading water sports and sailing events to Bahrain - had been intercepted by Iranian navy vessels and the crew detained.
"The boat may have strayed inadvertently into Iranian waters," the statement said. "The five crew members, all British nationals, are still in Iran. All are understood to be safe and well and their families have been informed." In fact, the crew have been allowed to use their mobile phones to contact their families, telling them that they are being well treated. "I haven't spoken to him since yesterday," Mr Porter's father, Charles, said yesterday. "He was as good as can be expected.
"He is a very strong character, very resilient. He's a professional sailor, very used to dealing with adversity [but] we are very concerned." Vanessa Bloomer, whose husband is Irish born but holds a UK passport, described it as a "difficult time", but declined to say more. Mr Bloomer, who is in his early 60s and who has lived in Bahrain for more than 20 years, was due to broadcast radio reports on the race's progress.
Aside from the fact that Tehran and the West - Britain and the United States in particular - are involved in a worsening row over uranium enrichment in Iran and its possible use in nuclear weapons, the UK has lingering, bad memories of sailors seized by the Iranians. In March 2007, there was an angry row between the UK and Iran after a 15-strong Royal Navy crew was detained by the Revolutionary Guard, after it was alleged they had strayed into Iranian waters. The British insisted they had been in Iraqi territory.
After almost two weeks, they were very publicly pardoned and released on television by a beaming Mr Ahmadinejad in what the Iranians clearly saw as a proganda coup. Two years earlier, eight British servicemen had been seized in the Shatt al-Arab, where they were training Iraqi crews, and only released after, again, being paraded on TV. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and his cabinet colleagues were updated on the situation yesterday. The UK government had been hoping to keep the detention of the crew secret because of the sensitivity of relationships between the two countries, but the news leaked out late on Monday.
Yusuf Ahmed, head of consular affairs at the Bahraini ministry of foreign affairs, said his government was also in contact with the Iranian authorities in a bid to secure the release the race crew. Ramin Mehmanparast, a spokesman for the foreign ministry in Tehran, would only say that the circumstances surrounding the detention of the Britons was still under investigation. Brig Gen Alireza Tangsiri, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' First Naval District, would not comment on the arrests, but made it clear that his troops had been responsible for the detentions.
Mr Miliband, meanwhile, went out of his way yesterday to emphasise publicly that the Britons being held were in no way connected to the military. "These are five civilians. They are yachtsmen. They were going about their sport. It seems they may have strayed inadvertently into Iranian waters. We look forward to the Iranian government dealing with this promptly. "There's certainly no confrontation or argument [with Iran]. As far as we are aware, these people are being well treated, which is right and what we would expect from a country like Iran.
"It's a consular case, which is being treated as a consular case by the UK, and I'm sure will be treated as a consular case by the Iranian authorities." But Ben Wallace, chairman of the British-Iranian All-Party Parliamentary Group, warned that Iran's actions might be a deliberate ploy to apply political leverage. "A normal nation would stop a yacht, check it out, maybe take it back to shore and get rid of them," the MP said. "But this is six days into the incident. That is much more worrying; that is more deliberate.
"This is more than just saying: 'Get out of our backyard'. This is odd behaviour, but is in line with Iranian behaviour. When [Iran] wants to make a point, it takes hostages." Yachtsmen in Dubai yesterday said tensions between the Iranian navy and US warships were apparent during the race itself. One captain who took part in the Dubai-Muscat race, who did not want to be named, said there was lots of "chatter" on the radio on Sunday night. He saw what he believed were US helicopters fly directly over his boat. "There was more talk on the radio, but it was all garbled and unclear. The first transmission said 'Iranian vessel' and the rest was noise.
"I turned on the radar and saw four huge shadows about four miles from my position," said the captain who had just passed through the Straights of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman that evening. firstname.lastname@example.org