Transcript

Iran: British Hostages to Be Released

Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007; 2:00 PM

Iran today said it is freeing the 15 British sailors and marines it seized two weeks ago in disputed waters of the Persian Gulf, ending a diplomatic crisis with a bit of political theater that included a chatty, smiling round of goodbyes between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the departing Britons.

Washington Post National Security Correspondent Dafna Linzer was online Wednesday, April 4, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the release and how it came about.

A transcript follows.

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Dafna Linzer: Hi everyone,

Thanks for joining us.

Some surprising news out of Iran today and some of you are already asking what it could mean. It's never easy to decode the Iranian government but let's give it a shot..

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Washington, D.C.: Was the release negotiated or did Ahmadinejad just decide himself to free the hostages?

Dafna Linzer: Hi,

Thanks for the important question. Obviously there was a lot of behind-the-scenes efforts here between the British and Iranian governments to secure the release of the 15 British sailors and marines. Prime Minister Tony Blair said today that his government used neither negotiation nor confrontation to secure their release so it's unclear what exactly took place. I do know that there had been very intensive and high-level contacts between Tehran and London over the last 12 days, and especially in the last five days.

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Fairfax, Va.: This seems to un-Iran to me. Have we underestimated their government? It seemed like there might be a trial and that this would be another America Held Hostage but that surprisingly (to me) did not happen. Care to comment?

Dafna Linzer: Hi there,

Thanks for the question. Obviously, this is a very different situation than the one the world witnessed in 1979 and which you alluded to. The Iranian decision to back down from the threat of a trial and prolonged stand-off with Britain is pretty significant. It's not clear yet whether the Iranians calculated that they had overplayed their hand on this (and of course the sailors and marines are not home yet - that is supposed to happen tomorrow), but for the time being it is clear that the Iranians came to the conclusion that a release was far more in their interest than increased confrontation with Britain.

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Bethesda, Md.: How is Iran's relationship with Britain different than with that of the U.S.?

Dafna Linzer: Hi there,

It's very different in some ways, and strikingly similar in other ways. Unlike the United States, Britain has full diplomatic relations and ties to Iran, there is a British embassy in Tehran, with a senior-level ambassador; British oil companies do huge business in Iran as do other British businesses; Britain also held several years of direct negotiations with Iran in order to resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.

Where it is similar is when dealing with some of the history, especially during the 1950s. It was Britain that pushed the United States into orchestrating a coup in Iran that brought about the end of a democratically elected leadership there, and installed the Iranian monarchy that was pro-US and pro-British until it was overthrown during the Islamic Revolution.

Obviously, Britain's role in Iraq has been a real source of tensions as well. It was Blair who launched the first accusations against Iran for supplying weapons materials used against troops.

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Washington, D.C.: So when will they be released, what is the procedure now?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, The Iranians first said today that they would be released today but then said they would be sent back home tomorrow. So it's obviously still a very sensitive situation and will remain so until the sailors and marines are back on British soil.

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Washington, D.C.: Did the White House have anything to do with the release?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, this is a really important question as well. The Bush administration had been pretty quiet during the first week of the stand off but the President suddenly came out strongly on the issue on Saturday, just as discussions between London and Tehran were intensifying. That may have been designed to put a hard line view on the public record while compromise may have actually been going on behind closed doors. The big question here is whether the Bush administration has agreed, as part of some deal for the sailors' release, to allow Iran access to five Iranians the United States is holding inside Iraq. Those are the Iranians that were arrested earlier this year, in December and January I believe, in military raids targeting Iranians accused of helping Shiite militias inside Iraq. Both Iran and Iraqi government officials have said the Iranians being held have diplomatic status and are innocent.

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Alexandria, Va.: Who was in the wrong here? Were the Brits in Iranian waters or weren't they? Was Iran splitting hairs?

Dafna Linzer: Hi,

There is a bit of a he-said, she-said going on about this. But British satellite photos seem pretty convincing that the team was operating inside Iraqi waters. Moreover, my understanding is that Brits were conducting the kind of routine mission the Iranians have observed them doing over and over again for the last several years so it seems unclear as to why the Iranian navy would suddenly view a daily anti-smuggling mission as threatening. Also, the British were not arrested off of some warship that was steaming toward the Iranian coast. They were returning, toward Iraq, after the mission.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is there bad PR going on re Iran? Since this seems to be a surprising outcome, has reporting about Iran and its intentions and inner workings been somehow unfactful? Are they not really the 500 pound gorilla and simply just misunderstood? This shows Ahmadinejad be reasonable, right?

Dafna Linzer: Hi,

I do think there is very little understanding about the complex inner workings of the Iranian government. US intelligence analysts and the policymakers they brief are often left guessing about Iran's motives and who is actually in charge of decision-making on a micro level there.

But Iran did say they were going to put the British crew on trial so I don't think this is an issue of misreporting or misinterpretation.

As for reasonable, I think the more likely assessment is that he overplayed his hand or was slapped down by the person who is really in charge in Iran and that is the country's Supreme Leader. We need to figure out more about the back story though to know what exactly the Iranians gained out of his exercise.

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada: From the point of view of PR, the release is quite brilliant PR in setting up a real dilemma for the Brits. If the detainees speak positively about their experiences in Iran, they become "goodwill ambassadors" for the Iranian government., about which Blair (and Bush) will not be particularly happy. But if the detainees disavow their apologetic statements made in Iran when they get home and the British try to use the negative accounts of the returnees for Iran-bashing, future British detainees in Iran may well pay a high price.

Dafna Linzer: Interesting analysis from Canada. But Blair chose his words very carefully today and my sense is that will be continue to be the case when the crew returns home. Part of the negotiations here must have included an agreement from both sides not to escalate this any further with rhetoric or accusations. I can't imagine any scenario under which the British crew would become "goodwill" anything for the Iranians. It seemed clear from the video footage that they were treated well during their detention, but I don't think that is enough to convince the British public that Iran handled this well from the beginning. They will likely be pleased that Iran releases them without harm or further escalation, once that happens tomorrow.

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Miami, Fla,: What about negotiations WITHIN the Iranian government about how to end the crisis with Britain? Certainly Supreme Leader Khamenei must have had something to say about it. Also, the deal was apparently facilitated by Ali Larijani, best known as an Iranian nuclear negotiator but also one of Ahmadinejad's rivals in his run for the presidency in 2005. The ISE (Islamic Society of Engineers) backed Larijani, who was not a member of the party, instead of Ahmadinejad, who is. We never hear much about Iranian domestic politics except if there is a presidential election.

Dafna Linzer: Bingo! Miami wins for best "Tehran insider" question.

Much of what happened here with the British crew has to do with domestic Iranian politics than anything else. The crew was detained, as I understand it, at the behest of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. While the Guard is under the direct control of the Supreme Leader's office, it is loyal to Ahemedinajad and the actions against the British have been seen by intelligence analysts in Washington and London as something of a power play by the Guard. With the Iranians now announcing the stand-off is ending with the British being "pardoned" and sent home, it is likely that the analysts will perceive this as a loss for the Guard and Ahmedinajad, or at least a weakening of their influence. And yes, this would not have happened without the Supreme Leader weighing in. His power often comes from his disinterest in choosing a side in Iran's ongoing power struggles so if he chose against Ahedminajad and the Guard on this one, that would be a whopper.

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Russell, Kan. : How will the soldiers that confessed on Iranian TV be treated by the Blair administration? I thought I heard some of the diplomats apologize as they were talking to the Iranian president today.

Dafna Linzer: Hi, that's a tough one. I can tell you that members of the U.S. military, and military strategists and observers were pretty floored by the fact that the British crew abandoned their vessel and were taken by the Iranians in open waters. I am sure they were ordered to so at gunpoint, but these are British sailors and marines - not civilians - and would hardly be in the wrong for refusing, also at gunpoint. I'm just not sure what the rules or training are for this situation or how they will be dealt with at home. Obviously, the issue for Britain right now is just to make sure they actually get home safely. Repercussions, if any, will come later.

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New Carrollton, Md.: What about Iran's nuclear capabilities and their staunch stand against any criticism or regulation from the West?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, Thanks for a good opportunity to bring in the nuclear issue because it foreshadows anything to do with Iran.

Iran is building and mastering technology for a nuclear energy program. But that same technology can be used for producing bomb-grade uranium which is why the Bush administration wants Iran to be prevented from continuing its work.

The U.N. Security Council has now weighed in on the matter three times, twice with resolutions compelling Iran to suspend its nuclear work and resume negotiations with Europe. Iran has so far refused to do so.

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Dafna Linzer:

Thanks to everyone who participated today, I wish we had more time to get through more questions. Let's try to do that in the coming days. In the meantime, stay tuned for additional details and reporting on the matter of the British crew release as well as the status of Iran's nuclear program.

To the person who mailed me a report in an envelope recently - please call me to follow up.

Thanks, Dafna

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