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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK
Iran power tussle over UK sailors
By Jim Muir
BBC Tehran correspondent

There have been conflicting signals from Iran about what it intends to do with the eight British navy personnel detained early on Monday after being accused of penetrating Iranian territory in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran.

British sailors held in Iran (picture from Iranian satellite television)
There are conflicting reports about the men's fate

Iran is a country of multiple power centres.

That is why there is confusion over what is going to happen to the navy personnel.

They were captured by the Revolutionary Guards, who are at the more radical end of the Iranian political spectrum.

Reports on an Arabic-language Iranian satellite channel said the British men would be put on trial, but since then there has been a series of statements from other branches of the Iranian power system saying that the men's immediate future is still undecided as their questioning continues.

Matter of time

The foreign and defence ministers, both of whom are members of President Khatami's reformist government, have said that once it is established why the three boats entered Iranian waters, the appropriate decision would be taken.

The implication there is that if it is clear that there was a simple navigational error the men would be freed.

A spokesman for the general command of the Iranian armed forces - and that includes the Revolutionary Guards - made a similar statement implicitly denying the report that it has already been decided to put the men on trial.

There are, meanwhile, unofficial reports that the Britons may indeed be freed soon, but it is likely that, behind the scenes, there are dissenting hardline voices who want at least to spin the affair out and teach the British a lesson about Iranian resolve and sovereignty.

The release of the men is not yet a foregone conclusion, but it is looking increasingly likely to be a matter of time.

The BBC's Jim Muir
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