By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 6, 2007
LONDON, April 5 -- The 15 British marines and sailors held captive by Iran for nearly two weeks returned home on Thursday as there were increasing calls for an investigation of the affair and confusion about whether their sudden release was part of a deal.
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, said the head of parliament's national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, "reiterated that all arrested British naval marines as well as the British government had confessed to having violated Iran's territorial waters."
The British denied that the crew had crossed into Iranian waters or that any apologies had been given. Speaking to reporters outside his Downing Street office, Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government had made no deals or promises to win the release of the service members, who were immediately whisked by helicopter from London's Heathrow Airport to a military base in southwest Britain for reunions with their families and security debriefings.
"I think what has actually happened is that we have managed to secure the release of our personnel more quickly than many people anticipated, and have done so -- and I want to make this very, very clear -- without any deal, without any negotiations, without any side agreement of any nature whatever," Blair said.
The release came as four British soldiers and their interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, an incident Blair used to illustrate the problem Britain faces with Iran.
"It's far too early to say that the particular terrorist attack that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists who were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime, so I make no allegation," he told reporters. "But the general picture, as I've said before, is that there are elements of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq," which he said could not be tolerated.
Carrying backpacks and duffel bags, the group of 14 men and one woman, held in Iran since March 23, disembarked at Heathrow in new military garb and stood in a line on the tarmac in front of reporters for a brief photo session before boarding two nearby British Royal Navy Sea King helicopters.
None waved, but all looked healthy, and many smiled and laughed. With the helicopter engines roaring in the background, it was not possible for reporters to talk to members of the group, who had been sequestered in the business-class compartment during their British Airways flight from Tehran, away from media representatives and other passengers. Reporters traveling on the plane said the service members drank champagne and looked relaxed.
Upon landing, the group was flown to Royal Marines Barracks Chivenor, near the far southwest British city of Barnstaple. A video released by the British Defense Ministry showed smiling sailors and marines in a joyous homecoming there with their families, enjoying deep embraces, wiping away tears, holding and hugging children, talking on cellphones and snapping pictures.
"It goes without saying that we are extremely happy to be back home in the U.K. and reunited with our loved ones," the group said in a joint release read to reporters by Lt. Col. Andy Price, a marine spokesman. "The welcome home we've enjoyed today is one none of us will ever forget. . . . We wish to thank everyone for their thoughts, kind words and prayers."
The group was conducting searches of boats near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab waterway, in an area of the Persian Gulf where the territorial line between Iran and Iraq is disputed, when they were apprehended by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran alleged that the crew had invaded its territorial waters, while Britain asserted that the group was about 1.7 miles inside Iraqi waters. Iran demanded an apology, Britain demanded the crew's unconditional release, and neither country would back down.
The standoff ended abruptly on Wednesday when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unexpectedly announced that the crew would be released as an Easter "present to the British people."
The ordeal has prompted widespread calls in the news media and among military analysts for an official investigation of the incident, to confirm where exactly the crew members were captured and if they had in fact strayed into Iranian waters.
Military analysts also question why the crew's small, lightly armed rubber boats were so far from their flagship, the HMS Cornwall, without adequate protection; why the Cornwall's radar did not detect Iranian military forces advancing on the crew's location and broadcast an alert; and why the ship's Lynx battle and reconnaissance helicopter did not provide air support for the group. Other analysts want to know why the service members were apprehended without a fight, and why they seemingly cooperated so willingly with their Iranian captors.
"There should be better procedures in place, which is why there probably should be an investigation," said Michael Williams, an analyst for Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. "But to be honest, I don't think they thought they would be picked up by anybody, because this was routine and they'd been doing it for ages without being caught."
He said most Britons probably will conclude that, being outgunned, the crew made the right choice in submitting to the Iranian captors rather than launching a firefight that could have mushroomed into a broader and more dangerous conflict.
Liam Fox, the opposition Conservative Party's spokesman on defense, told the BBC that some questions about the incident still need to be answered by the Blair government.
"The main question is what can we do differently to prevent something like this happening in the future," he said, while also raising the issue of "why there wasn't any patrol boat cover."
News reports here suggested that both the Iranians and the British began to soften their positions over the weekend with an exchange of diplomatic letters. Although the contents of the communications have not been released, there were reports that both sides expressed a desire to avoid similar disputes in the future. Analysts said this could signal the start of continuing dialogue involving Iran, Britain and Iraq over the rules of engagement in the disputed waters, and an effort to negotiate a clearer boundary between the two countries off their coasts.
The release of the British crew also coincided with the release this week in Iraq of an Iranian diplomat who had been detained for two months, and increased diplomatic activity surrounding five Iranians detained in January by U.S. troops in northern Iraq. But U.S., British and Iranian officials all said the events were not related to the release of the British detainees.
A sideshow to the event was what the British news media dubbed the "costume drama." The first televised pictures of the crew after their capture showed them in their Royal Navy uniforms. When they appeared Wednesday with Ahmadinejad, the 14 men were wearing dark suits and tie-less shirts -- a look Iranians say was cultivated after the 1979 Iranian revolution as an explicitly anti-Western fashion.
The Sun's front page ran a large picture of the group, some waving at the camera, above the headline, "I went to Iran and all I got was this lousy suit."
When they disembarked at Heathrow, the marines in the group wore desert camouflage uniforms, while the sailors wore crisp blue shirts and black pants.