Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Several of the captured Royal Navy personnel walk across a runway at London's Heathrow airport, April 5, 2007. Their release, after being held by Iran for 13 days, was seen as a sign of Iranian flexibility by some analysts.
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Fifteen British sailors — released by Iran as a "gift to the British people" — returned home safely Thursday. They arrived at London's Heathrow airport, smiled briefly for the cameras, and then were whisked by helicopter to an airbase, where they were reunited with their families.
The happy reunion ends a nearly two-week ordeal for the 15 sailors and marines — 14 men and one woman. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup met with the crew briefly and described them as being "happy and in good shape."
At least one British tabloid, however, criticized the Royal Navy crew members for appearing in videos on Iranian State Television in which they "confessed" to trespassing into Iran's territorial waters. In an editorial, The Sun newspaper said: "The sight of the illegally detained British forces thanking Iranian tyrants for their freedom will sicken the nation."
Britain maintains that the sailors were searching for smugglers in Iraqi, not Iranian waters when they were seized by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
The crisis is over, but the analysis has only begun. From the beginning, it was clear that the incident was about much more than 15 sailors. It was about Iran's relationship with the West. It was about how the West responds to Iranian provocations. And in this case, at least, it was about how diplomacy prevailed.
It's not clear what exactly led to the unexpected breakthrough, but the release of the 15 sailors and marines came one day after a senior adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke directly with an Iranian negotiator and reaffirmed Britain's wish for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. On that same day, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, also discussed the sailors' fate with an Iranian official.
Like all good diplomatic solutions, both sides can claim victory. Iran can claim it protected the integrity of its territorial waters and stood up to the West. Britain can claim that persistent diplomatic pressure on Iran ultimately won the sailors' release and diffused an international crisis. Blair insisted that no deal was made to secure the sailors' release.
Their release came as a surprise. Some analysts expected Iran to detain the crew for much longer, making Blair twist in the diplomatic winds during his final months in office, just as Iran did to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter following the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.
One reading of the outcome is that Iran is, after all, sensitive to international public opinion. Much of the world condemned Iran for seizing the Royal Navy crew, and several nations in the region reportedly pleaded with Iran to release them.
Iran, for its part, managed to dominate international television news with pictures of the detainees "confessing" and then, perhaps sensing when it had milked the crisis for all it was worth, releasing the sailors "like a card player flinging down his hand to scoop the pool," as one BBC correspondent put it.
Britain's relief at the release of the 15 crew members was tempered by news that four British soldiers and a translator were slain in an ambush in southern Iraq. That attack happened just hours before the freed crew touched down in London.
The United States accuses Iran of funneling arms and money to Shiite militias in Iraq. It's an accusation that Blair echoed Thursday, even as the 15 sailors were arriving back on British soil.
"The general picture, as I have said before, is there are elements — at least of the Iranian regime — that are backing, financing, arming terrorism in Iraq," Blair said.
One big question remains unanswered: Does the diplomatic solution to this crisis hold out hopes that compromise is possible over Iran's nuclear program? Not necessarily, analysts say. The stakes are much higher with the nuclear program—and, if anything, the capture of the sailors shows that Iran is willing to confront the West, not only diplomatically but also militarily.
One encouraging sign, however, is that the release of the sailors may have been facilitated by the intervention of Ali Larijani. He is considered a pragmatist in the Iranian regime. He is also Iran's chief nuclear negotiator.