TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s firebrand president accused London on Saturday of turning a dispute over his government’s detention of 15 British military personnel in the Persian Gulf into an international crisis.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking in southwest Iran to religious-minded tourists at the site of a famous battle in the Iran-Iraq war, struck a mostly defensive tone, according to a translation of the speech by the official Iranian news agency.
Though he repeated anti-Western mantras, he also suggested that a more conciliatory attitude by Britain might smooth the crisis. He did not hint at an imminent release for the 14 men and one woman; nor did he call for putting them on trial, as have some hard-liners.
“The occupation forces of Britain have strayed into our waters and our border guards have captured them with courage, knowledge and generosity,” said Ahmadinejad, whose authority over Iran’s national security is superseded by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“But instead of apologizing to the Iranian nation, the arrogant play the martyr,” he said. “The arrogant powers in the world are issuing statements and delivering speeches instead of offering their apologies and expressing their mea culpa.”
Iran’s state-controlled radio said members of the audience chanted “Death to Britain” and called for the detainees to be put on trial.
Iranian gunships on March 23 surrounded and detained 15 British sailors and marines they accused of crossing illegally into their territorial waters in a long-disputed sector of the gulf near the Shatt al-Arab waterway, known by Iranians as the Alvand River. Britain insists the sailors were in Iraqi waters. Both countries say they have satellite images and other evidence to prove their argument.
The dispute has escalated as Britain sought condemnation of the incident from the United Nations and the European Union, and Iran publicized videotaped and written statements from two detainees apologizing for entering Iranian waters. Iran’s Foreign Ministry reiterated complaints Sunday that U.N. and EU involvement only complicates the dispute. Iranians have rebuffed British requests to allow diplomats in Tehran access to the detainees.