By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 5, 2007
LONDON, April 5 -- An hour into a news conference marked by his trademark tirades against the West, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a stunner Wednesday: Iran would release 15 British marines and sailors it had captured in the Persian Gulf and held for almost two weeks. Early Thursday, the former captives departed Tehran, bringing to a peaceful end what had been a tense international standoff.
Calling the release an Easter gift to the British people, Ahmadinejad said the captives would go free immediately after his afternoon news conference. The 15 Britons, wearing civilian clothes and looking ebullient, later appeared with him outside his presidential palace, one of them expressing gratitude to him for his "forgiveness."
At about 8.30 a.m. local time Thursday, the entire group flew out of Tehran on board a regularly scheduled British Airways flight to London, the Associated Press reported.
"I'm glad that our 15 service personnel have been released, and I know their release will come as a relief not just to them but to their families," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday in a brief appearance outside his Downing Street office.
"Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either," Blair said. "And to the Iranian people I would simply say this: We bear you no ill will. On the contrary, we respect Iran as an ancient civilization, as a nation with a proud and dignified history."
Family members said they were overjoyed. Some popped champagne in celebration. "We're absolutely over the moon," said Stephen Coe, father of captive sailor Chris Coe. "It's the best news we've had for a long time."
The stalemate began March 23 when 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines who were inspecting ships in the Persian Gulf were captured by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The British crew was conducting searches near the demarcation line that separates the territorial waters of Iran and Iraq.
Iranian officials said the sailors and marines had "invaded" Iranian waters and demanded an apology, while Britain maintained that the crew members were well within Iraqi waters and demanded their unconditional release. The ensuing standoff came as the U.N. Security Council stiffened sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
Tensions escalated when state-run Iranian television aired footage of the lone female captive, Faye Turney, in a head scarf, apologizing and stating that the group had "trespassed" in Iranian waters. Later, Iran released a letter said to be in Turney's handwriting in which she criticized Britain's presence in Iraq.
The broadcast and the release of the letter outraged British officials, who said Turney's statements were obviously coerced. Other captives were shown on Iranian television, and Iranian officials said all 15 had apologized and confessed, further inflaming the situation. Hundreds of demonstrators marched on the British Embassy in Tehran.
"After 13 days of confusion, the Iranian different power groups had got together and decided that now things should be finished," Chris Rundle, a retired British diplomat who served in Iran, concluded Wednesday. "I think they came to realize that with the international pressure on them, and with the so-called confessions from the captives, that was the most they could get out of the situation."
Ahmadinejad sprang his surprise during an afternoon news conference that had already gone on for an hour, leading analysts in Britain to believe he had no major announcement to make about the 13-day old crisis. After blasting Western policies in the Middle East, then awarding medals to the Iranian commanders who had detained the British naval personnel, Ahmadinejad turned to the stalemate over the captives.
"We had every right to put these people on trial," he said. "But I want to forgive them as a present to the British people, to say they are all free."
The gesture, which Ahmadinejad termed a "pardon," was being made to mark the prophet Muhammad's birthday on March 30 and the upcoming Easter holiday, he said.
"Unfortunately, the British government was not even brave enough to tell their people the truth, that it made a mistake," he said, once again asserting that the captives had violated Iranian territory. He denied that any deal had been struck in exchange for the release, saying, "When we do something due to Islamic goodwill, we do not expect to receive any rewards."
"We didn't want confrontation," he said in response to a reporter's question. "We wanted our rights. We didn't want to continue the tension. The British government acted badly. That prolonged the process."
After the news conference, Ahmadinejad was shown on Iranian television talking casually with the 15 Britons and shaking their hands. One could be heard saying, "Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much." Another male service member said, "We are grateful for your forgiveness."
The British men, previously shown on Iranian television in military uniforms, wore dark business suits but, following the Iranian style, no neckties. Turney wore a blue jacket and blue-and-white head scarf.
In Britain, some relatives of the captives said they feared the celebrations were premature. "We want him on the plane and stood in front of us before we actually believe he's coming home," Maggie Phillips, sister of sailor Arthur Batchelor, told Sky News.
"Whoever has been in the right or wrong, the whole thing has been a political mess, so let's just get them home," said Ray Cooper, uncle of Adam Sperry, a marine.
The circumstances of the capture remain hotly disputed. It is unclear whether it was the act of a local commander that escalated out of control. In Iran, some analysts suggested that the incident was being used as a pretext for U.S. or British military action against Iran.
Foreign analysts have debated whether Iranian officials, bristling at their increased international isolation, staged the incident as a provocation -- to seek leverage to roll back U.N. sanctions or as a bargaining chip for the release of Iranians being held in Iraq.
Wednesday's announcement came a day after the release in Baghdad of a senior Iranian diplomat who had been abducted two months ago and held incommunicado. Iran accused the United States of being behind the Feb. 4 kidnapping of the diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who returned to Tehran on Tuesday. U.S. and British officials deny the allegation.
There are also reports of intensified negotiations to secure the release of five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in January in Irbil, in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. U.S. officials accuse the men of being members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, but Iran says they are all diplomats. On Wednesday, a U.S. general said they were allowed their first visit by a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The two-week standoff over the British sailors and marines was complicated by the uneasiness of Iran's diplomatic relations with the West, exacerbated in recent years by a bitter dispute over the country's fledgling nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council, at the strong urging of the United States, recently passed a resolution tightening financial and other sanctions imposed on Iran, demanding that it stop its uranium enrichment program, which many Western countries suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
Iran has refused, calling the issue a matter of national sovereignty and saying the program is legal under international law and strictly for generating electricity.
Researcher Karla Adam contributed to this report.