Great Britain cautious as Iranian envoy is freed by Iraqi government


By Steve Negus, Iraq Correspondent, and Daniel Dombey in London

Published: April 3 2007 19:55 | Last updated: April 4 2007 03:27

An Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Baghdad two months ago was released on Tuesday by his captors, in a possible indication that Iraq is stepping up efforts to relieve tensions between Tehran and the west.

But, despite increased ­contacts on Tuesday between London and Tehran and the possibility of formal bilateral talks in the dispute over Iran’s capture of 15 British personnel, the UK has played down hopes of a ­sudden diplomatic breakthrough. Shortly after Jalal Sharafi went missing on February 4 Iranian officials said they held the US responsible “for the safety and life of the Iranian diplomat”, claiming he had been taken by forces under US authority.

Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Tehran’s ambassador to Baghdad, subsequently claimed that the kidnappers had used US vehicles and that the abduction appeared to be “within the framework of the US president’s order to step up encounters with Iranians” – a charge denied by Washington.

The Iraqis have long ­complained of being caught in the middle of a US-Iranian feud.

“We have been working on this [the release] since the beginning of the incident,” Hoshyer Zebari, Iraqi foreign minister, on Tuesday told the Financial Times. He added that “it was not a government entity” that had been behind the kidnapping. “It may have been a lone security entity but not tied to the government as such.”

On his return to Iran, Mr Sharafi was met by Manouchehr Mottaki, foreign minister. No comment was made as to the identity of his kidnappers.

Iraq also says it is lobbying to win the release of five Iranians seized by US forces in January. Both Britain and the US insist that there is no linkage between the Iranian detainees and the 15 British sailors and marines captured last month. President George W.?Bush said on Tuesday: “I strongly support [Tony Blair’s] declaration that there should be no quid pro quos when it comes to the hostages.”

However, the release of Mr Shafari came as Mr Blair said that the next 48 hours in the dispute over the British captives would be “fairly critical”. He added: “The pressure is available to us if this thing has to be hard and tough and long. On the other hand...we’re not looking for confrontation over this.”

On Tuesday night British officials said they had made their first contacts with Ali Larijani, Iran’s top security official, as the British prime minister backed bilateral talks to end the dispute. Downing Street said: “Both sides share a desire for an early resolution to this issue through direct talks...The UK has proposed direct bilateral discussions and awaits an Iranian response on when these can begin.”

However, Margaret Beckett, British foreign secretary, had earlier warned a sudden breakthrough was unlikely. “I would urge you to be cautious in assuming that we are likely to see a very swift resolution to this issue,” she told reporters in London.

The Foreign Office believes that the next two days are more important in terms of establishing a diplomatic track. This week Mr Larijani told British television that Tehran wanted a diplomatic solution and had no wish to put the captives on trial.

Although the UK has still not been granted details of the detainees’ whereabouts, it has signalled it could be ready to send a joint diplomatic and naval delegation to negotiate with Iran if the diplomatic track gathered pace.

The five Iranians still held in Iraq were detained by US forces on January 11 in Irbil, in the Kurdish self-rule area. The US has previously claimed they were members of Iran’s ­Revolutionary Guard and had links to Iraqi Shia ­militants.

The Iranians, however, claim that the five are diplomats, although Baghdad counters that they were not accredited envoys.

Additional reporting by Gareth Smyth in Tehran

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007