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Richard Dalton: Patience is a virtue when dealing with Tehran

The Iranians take entry into their territory without permission very seriously and will investigate thoroughly to assure themselves that they understand how and why it happened, and exactly who the yachtsmen are. The UK, on the other hand, wants to see the release of people who are believed to have made an innocent mistake through bad luck, misjudgement or problems with equipment. The Iranians are going to talk tough for their domestic audience – but we should not assume right off the bat that these positions are incompatible.

Some of the precedents, involving the potential offence under Iranian law of illegal entry, point towards a solution in a couple of weeks or so. In others, the investigation has led to a prosecution and conviction. It is going to be a very anxious time for the yachtsmen and their families. This incident may be prolonged, but the best way to help the yachtsmen is to be patient, to be frank and to communicate well with the Iranians.

The Iranians don't like being called names any more than anyone else does, especially when in this case they have not been proved to have done much to deserve it. It would make the task of our Government harder if people in Britain jump to the conclusion that we already have either a repeat of the incidents in which our armed service personnel were involved in 2004 and 2007 or a plot to put pressure on the Government in other contexts.

The Foreign Office must work around the unavoidable fact that the basic UK/Iranian relationship is in poor shape. As ambassador to Iran, I found the Consular Department professional and practical. They do not have authority over the security forces, but they relayed our points of view and added their own on the balance of advantage for Iran between different courses of action.

Encouragement to the Iranian authorities to see this case in the context of good-neighbourliness would be one approach. This time the Iranians are holding civilians engaged in a sporting event based on two friendly neighbouring countries, Dubai and Oman. They would, in contrast, bridle at pressure tactics, or any demands that normal procedures should be waived. And they would argue that governments like ours cannot intervene to short-circuit due process simply because foreigners have got into difficulties.

Tactics will be reviewed daily, depending on how the Iranians move on the case and on Iranian government statements. Clearly no one can exclude a serious dispute developing down the track. But, for now, we should be giving some space for the approach that has already begun.

Sir Richard Dalton was British ambassador to Iran, from 2002-06