TEHRAN, Iran – Fifteen British sailors and marines released by Iran after nearly two weeks in captivity flew out of a Tehran airport today aboard a commercial flight bound for London, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
The 15, whose release was announced Wednesday by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left on a British Airways flight from Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport at about 8:30 a.m. local time (1 a.m. EDT), 30 minutes behind schedule.
In releasing the Britons, Ahmadinejad won what some analysts described as a major propaganda coup.
The logjam over the Britons captured in the Persian Gulf appeared to have broken after telephone contacts Tuesday night between Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief international negotiator, and Nigel Sheinwald, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief adviser on foreign affairs, who is slated to become London’s ambassador to the United States.
Although Larijani is a longtime rival of Ahmadinejad within Tehran’s fractious leadership, Iran observers said it was the president who probably gained the most from the crisis. Those within the country who have argued that Iran should pursue a more cautious path in Persian Gulf security matters and on the controversial issue of the nation’s nuclear research lost ground, the observers said.
“Iran wanted to make a point that it cannot be bullied and that it plays hardball,” said Vali Nasr of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “If anything this is a victory for Ahmadinejad: Iran can be reckless, flex its muscles and not face consequences.”
The Iranian president made the unexpected announcement during a press conference at which he pinned medals on the border patrol officers who oversaw the detention of the British naval personnel March 23.
“On the occasion of the birth anniversary of the great prophet of Islam, and on the occasion of Easter and Passover, I would like to announce that the great nation of Iran, while it is entitled to put the British military personnel on trial, has pardoned these 15 sailors and gives their release to the people of Britain as a gift,” Ahmadinejad said.
The announcement followed the release in Iraq of an Iranian diplomat detained in Baghdad in February, prompting the British press to raise the specter of a “secret deal.” British officials said the events were unconnected.
Also in Iraq, the U.S. military disclosed Wednesday that it was considering an “informal” request from Iran to allow a consular visit to five Iranians detained in Iraq since January.
Speculation about how the diplomatic standoff was resolved centered on outside parties such as Syria, Turkey, Qatar and Iraq. But it also included theories that pragmatists such as Larijani may have convinced the Revolutionary Guard that the costs of a trial for the 14 men and one woman would be too high.
Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, may also have expressed a desire to let them go.
Whatever the scenario, Ahmadinejad could boast that he had outwitted Britain, the nation that, in his view of history, has been humiliating Iran for centuries.
“As on the nuclear file, Ahmadinejad did not play the central role, but he still shapes the public diplomacy and reaps symbolic but also tangible benefits,” said Emile el-Hokayem, an Iran expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
In his Tehran news conference, Ahmadinejad said the pardon did not represent a sudden shift in Iran’s position.
“I didn’t change my decision suddenly. From the beginning, I didn’t want to have any confrontation. We wanted our rights,” he said. “The British government behaved badly, and it took longer.”
He said no concessions had been offered by the British government in exchange for the release but contended that British officials had assured Iran there would be no future incursions into Iranian territory.
A British Foreign Office spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he “certainly could not confirm” that Britain offered any pledge not to “repeat” the incident.
Blair said he was glad of the release, which he said would come as a “profound relief” to the families of the detainees.
“And to the Iranian people I would simply say this,” Blair added. “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, and the disagreements that we have with your government, we wish to resolve peacefully, through dialogue.”