US keen to avoid 'escalation of tensions' with Iran following capture of British sailors
The Independent UK
By Rupert Cornwell in Washington
Despite its latest large scale naval exercises in the Gulf and the dispute over Teheran's nuclear programme, the US claims it is doing its utmost not to add to the new tensions between the West and Iran following last Friday's capture of 15 British sailors and marines by Iranian forces.
"There is no escalation of tensions on our part," Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, told reporters yesterday, after announcing that President Bush had discussed the crisis with Iran in a video conference call with Tony Blair - a discussion, she insisted, scheduled well before the incident.
The President moreover "fully backed" the Prime Minister in his handling of the crisis, and his efforts to secure the release of the British military personnel, seized by Revolutionary Guard units after carrying out a routine inspection of a vessel in what Britain says were Iraqi territorial waters.
At the State Deaprtment, a spokesman said the sailors and marines should be released "unconditionally." For all the frustrations with Iran, and despite much sabre rattling by vice-President Dick Cheney and others, Washington is all too aware of how high the stakes are in this latest confrontation.
Proof of that came on Tuesday afternoon when oil prices briefly shot up by over 8 per cent on rumours - later shown to be unfounded - of an armed clash between Iran and US vessels. The spectre is of a disruption, or even a shut down, of the Straits of Hormuz, through which a third of sea-borne global oil supplies pass each day.
The fact remains however that the massive new war games in the Gulf were brought forward because of the incident with the British, according to a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The exercises, involving two carrier groups, are the largest of their kind since 2003. As Mr Bush made clear in an address on January 10 that directly blamed Iran for fomenting violence against US forces in Iraq, they are intended to send a clear message to Teheran.
Many experts here see a direct linkage between events in Iraq and the Iranian-British confrontation in the Gulf, arguing that the British prisoners may be being held by Teheran as bargaining chips to secure the release of five Iranians taken captive by US forces in the Iraqi city of Arbil - almost at the same moment Mr Bush delivered his belligerent speech.
That would automatically draw Washington into Britain's crisis, though officials here describe talk of a prisoner swap as "purely hypothetical." Even so, no country is more aware than the US of the perils of hostage crises involving Iran. Memories are vivid of the 444-day crisis between November 1979 and January 1981, when diplomats and other US personnel were held prisoner at the US embassy in Teheran, and of the disastrous failure of the rescue attempt organised by the Carter administration in April 1980.
Until the seizure of the British sailors and Royal Marines, there had been signs that for all their differences, Iran and the US were ready to talk to each other, evidenced by the contacts almost three weeks ago between officials of the two countries attending an Iraq neighbours conference.
Talk of military strikes to destroy Iranian nuclear installations has also abated of late, especially since the United Nations Security Council agreed to toughen sanctions against Teheran last weekend - though Mr Bush continues to insist that "all options" remain on the table to resolve the crisis.
Also playing down the tensions with Iran, an official with Washington's energy-forecasting agency held out the possibility of using the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to counter any short-term disruption in Mideast Gulf oil shipments.
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