A senior American commander in the Gulf has said his men would have fired on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard rather than let themselves be taken hostage.
In a dramatic illustration of the different postures adopted by British and US forces working together in Iraq, Lt-Cdr Erik Horner - who has been working alongside the task force to which the 15 captured Britons belonged - said he was "surprised" the British marines and sailors had not been more aggressive.
Asked by The Independent whether the men under his command would have fired on the Iranians, he said: "Agreed. Yes. I don't want to second-guess the British after the fact but our rules of engagement allow a little more latitude. Our boarding team's training is a little bit more towards self-preservation."
The executive officer - second-in-command on USS Underwood, the frigate working in the British-controlled task force with HMS Cornwall - said: " The unique US Navy rules of engagement say we not only have a right to self-defence but also an obligation to self-defence. They [the British] had every right in my mind and every justification to defend themselves rather than allow themselves to be taken. Our reaction was, 'Why didn't your guys defend themselves?'"
His comments came as it was reported British intelligence had been warned by the CIA that Iran would seek revenge for the detention of five suspected Iranian intelligence officers in Iraq two months ago but refused to raise threat levels in line with their US counterparts. The capture of the eight sailors and seven marines - including one young mother - will undoubtedly renew accusations that Britain's determination to maintain a friendly face in the region has left its troops frequently under protected.
Vastly outnumbered and out-gunned, the Royal Navy team from HMS Cornwall were seized on Friday after completing a UN-authorised inspection of a merchant dhow in what they insist were clearly Iraqi waters. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy appeared in half a dozen attack speedboats mounted with machine guns..
Yesterday, the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, said British rules of engagement were "very much de-escalatory, because we don't want wars starting ... Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were, in effect, able to be captured and taken away."
Three days after the team were taken hostage, Tony Blair publicly spoke about the diplomatic crisis for the first time. "I hope the Iranian government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us," he said
"We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong," he added, speaking from Berlin.
In a telephone conversation with the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki last night the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett "expressed concern regarding the detention of the British soldiers". An Iranian official later confirmed that Iran may give consular access to the British sailors once an investigation into the incident is completed.
Yesterday, the armed forces spokesman General Ali Reza Afshar said the crew were in "sterling health" and were being interrogated in Tehran, where the Iranians claim they have "confessed" to straying into Iranian waters.
The Foreign Office minister, Lord Triesman, held "frank" discussions with the Iranian ambassador yesterday .