THE British government last night moved to play down claims that Iran was behind the kidnap of five British men in Iraq after the return of hostage Peter Moore.
Reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had ordered the audacious raid on the Iraqi finance ministry where IT consultant Mr Moore was installing anti-corruption software were strongly denied by the Foreign Office.
Mr Moore was released on Wednesday to the British Embassy after two and a half years in captivity.
The dead bodies of three of his security guards, Jason Creswell, Jason Swindelhurst and Alec Maclachlan, were returned in the spring but the whereabouts of a fifth hostage, Scottish security guard Alan McMenemy, is unknown.
General David Patraeus, America's former commander in Iraq, said yesterday that he was "90 per cent certain" that Iran was behind the kidnap.
And an unnamed member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard claimed that hostages were taken within a day of their capture to prison camps run by the Iran government linked al-Quds Brigade.
Former Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, who had responsibility for the Middle East at the time of the kidnap, said he assumed Iran had "their fingers somewhere in the pie".
Dr Howells said: "They can't resist meddling in Iraq. It is one of their great priorities. They control and finance many of the Shia militias inside Iraq."
But a Foreign Office spokesman responded: "We have seen speculation that Iran is directly involved in this kidnapping. Iran of course has an influence in Iraq, but we have no evidence to substantiate claims of direct involvement in the kidnapping.
"We have no evidence that the British hostages, including Peter Moore, were held in Iran. We are not in a position to say with any certainty where they were held during each and every single day of their two and a half years in captivity."
British officials are reluctant to escalate tensions further, after a row broke out over the UK's criticism of Iran's heavy-handed treatment of anti-government protesters in Tehran.
The government will also be careful not to appear too hostile to the regime before knowing for certain what happened to Mr McMenemy, from Milngavie near Glasgow.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband has said he believes the 34-year-old is dead but his wife Roseleen McMenemy told The Scotsman she still hoped he would be home soon.
Amid rising diplomatic tensions, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said Britain would "receive a punch on the mouth" if it did not "stop its nonsense".
Iranian state television dismissed claims that Tehran was behind the kidnapping as "part of a psychological war against Iran".
The UK government has denied that it had been a party to a deal for the release of Mr Moore.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Brown had spoken to the Iraqi PM to thank him for his efforts in the release of Mr Moore.
He added: "The Prime Minister expressed his gratitude to those involved in securing Mr Moore's safe return. They also shared concerns for Alan McMenemy."