Computers could defuse Iran row

NAVIGATIONAL computers on British patrol boats seized by Iran could be used to resolve a rapidly-escalating row between London and Tehran over the eight servicemen captured last week.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has made it clear that he is prepared to believe the Royal Marines’ account of being "forcibly escorted" into Iranian waters after routine patrolling off the Iraqi coast.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, raised the temperature yesterday by accusing Iran of "intolerable" behaviour in its decision to blindfold the men and parade them on television.

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Mr Straw said he was making "strong representations" to the Iranians about the way the servicemen were treated.

The Foreign Office said it was pressurising Tehran to release the boats and equipment seized on the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway, which separates Iraq and Iran.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that they were confident about securing the return of the boats.

The Iranian government has said that British diplomats had accepted that the marines had strayed to the wrong side of the waterway. But Mr Straw yesterday made clear he does not necessarily accept this version of events. "We would be greatly assisted if and when we get back the global positioning equipment, because that will tell us for certain where they were," he said.

The equipment has recording devices which could be used to track the movements.

A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry said they believed there was no case to answer - and claimed it had minutes of a meeting, signed by a United Kingdom official, in which he admitted the marines had made a mistake.

"We expect the British authorities to express an opinion on the basis of accurate information and facts," he said. "The minutes acknowledged that the British boats entered the Iranian waters by mistake. The minutes also included the expression of regret by the British soldiers."

The terse exchanges between Tehran and London yesterday threatened to ignite a new diplomatic row which Mr Straw is desperate to avoid as Britain tries to court opinion in the Middle East.

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Ministers are also keen for Iran to strike up cordial relations with Iraq’s new multi-ethnic government, rather than ally itself with Shiite groups in the British-patrolled zone which are calling for an Islamist, pro-Tehran southern Iraq.