Iran Calls Release of British Troops a 'Gift' Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to release 15 British sailors and marines who were seized in March. The president said the pardons are an "Easter gift" to Britain.
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Iran Calls Release of British Troops a 'Gift'

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Iran Calls Release of British Troops a 'Gift'

Iran Calls Release of British Troops a 'Gift'

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CHADWICK: This is DAY TO DAY. The standoff between Britain and Iran is almost over. Almost. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ADAMS: I'm Noah Adams. At a news conference in Tehran today, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he had pardoned the British crew detained last month in the northern Persian Gulf. Iranian television says the 15 captured British sailors and marines will leave that country tomorrow.

CHADWICK: In a moment, we'll hear from our correspondent in London. First, we're joined by reporter Roxana Saberi, who is in Tehran. Roxana, do you know where the captives are now? Have they been handed over to British diplomats?

ROXANA SABERI: Well, Iranian television has shown some of the British sailors and marines meeting with the Iranian president after a news conference, at which the president had announced that the sailors would be immediately released and would return to Britain. Some of them were shaking his hand and thanking the president for his people's kind treatment of the sailors during their detention over these nearly two weeks. And it's reported that they're supposed to be handed over to British diplomats soon. And although the president said they would be released immediately, Iranian state television has said it's more likely they'll be returned to their country tomorrow.

CHADWICK: It did seem a bit like a political theater preceded by this kind of ceremony where Mr. Ahmadinejad awarded a medal to the Iranian coast guard commander who's crew it was that had detained the Royal Navy crew.

SABERI: That's right. He did during this press conference award medals of honor to the coast guard. He had again stressed that these Britons had invaded Iranian waters but that Iran was freeing the Britons as what he called a gift to the British people. I think it really is a point for Iran's propaganda or for their soft power, you could say. Because they've been able to show to their people a message that these Britons really did trespass into Iranian waters and Iran was protecting it's territory; and at the same time, Iran has been able to send a message to the Arab speaking people in this region because they've been broadcasting confessions of the British sailors and marines on Iran's state-run Arabic language TV. And perhaps they've also sent a message to the international community that they won't buckle under pressure, for example, over its nuclear program. But it remains to be seen if this will help Iran's cause in the international community in the long run or not.

CHADWICK: This has just happened, but I wonder if there's any sense of how it happened there in Tehran. After all, the word emanating from Iran over the last two weeks has been we're not sure which faction is really holding this British crew. They're going to be put on trial, they're not going to be put on trial. You hear so many different things. How has this been resolved, do you know?

SABERI: It isn't clear how it was resolved. You are right. There are many different factions in Iran, and it's thought that the more pragmatic factions wanted the sailors to be released sooner and they always stress diplomacy. Whereas the hardliners, perhaps elements of the Revolutionary Guards who had captured the sailors nearly two weeks ago, wanted to hang on to these sailors as long as possible, or at least until Britain would apologize for trespassing into Iranian waters. President Ahmadinejad today at the press conference was asked what changed Iran's mind to suddenly let these British sailors go. And he said it wasn't sudden. He said the British Foreign Ministry had sent a letter to Iran stating that it would try not to let this incident happen again in the future. But Ahmadinejad also stressed this wasn't the reason for releasing these sailors, he said it was just a decision that the Iranian government made.

CHADWICK: Roxana Saberi from Tehran. Roxana, thank you.

SABERI: Sure, thanks for having me.

CHADWICK: And now to London, where Prime Minister Tony Blair made remarks today on the release of the British crew, and he said he was addressing some of them to the people of Iran.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (United Kingdom): The disagreements that we have with your government we wish to resolve peacefully through a dialogue. I hope, as I've always hoped, that in the future we are able to do so.

CHADWICK: NPR's Rob Gifford has been covering the British side of the story. He's with us now from London. Rob, what else did the prime minister have to say?

ROB GIFFORD: Well, he gave a fairly brief set of comments to the media standing outside number 10 Downing Street. He did - that was interesting the way he said we bear you no ill will to the Iranian people. That was at the end of his little speech. Earlier on, he'd talked about his profound relief that this was all over. It looks as thought it's all over. And he talked, he praised the measured approach of the British government. He rather strangely actually called it, not negotiating, but not confronting, either. He described the way the government had dealt with it as not negotiating but not confronting, which raised a few eyebrows here since it seemed as though all of last week he was quite confrontational and in the last few days everyone feels the British have been negotiating. But generally, it's a sense of profound relief, I think.

CHADWICK: And any word there on what might have brought the resolution?

GIFFORD: No. As we were hearing from Tehran, it's very difficult to gauge what's been going on behind the scenes. One rather interesting piece of speculation, which is purely speculation firmly denied by Prime Minister Blair and in fact by President Bush yesterday, regards five Iranians held in Northern Iraq by the U.S. military. The Iranian side said that they met with an Iranian envoy today from Baghdad, from the embassy in Baghdad. And this of course has raised speculation that some kind of captive exchange has been agreed behind the scenes and that these Iranians will be released at some point. As I say, the U.S. side has not commented on this speculation but there are lots of things swirling around to work out why so suddenly this all just happened.

CHADWICK: Well there are a lot of things swirling around, including a wire report out of Damascus that Syrian officials say oh, we had a hand in this, we did something to get these 15 people released. And of course House Speaker Pelosi has just been in Syria, so all in all it's a speedy resolution, quite mysterious. Just tell me, any word from the families there in England, the families of the 15 crew members who were held?

GIFFORD: Yes we have heard from several of them. As you can imagine, they're overjoyed; they are waiting to have their loved ones back here on British soil, which is expected to happen tomorrow. Needless to say, they're not thinking too much about who was involved in freeing their loved ones and perhaps will never know exactly what was going on behind the scenes, but certainly a degree of jubilation here. This has been quite a long drawn out 13-day stand off. The last one that happened three years ago was only three days, and so I think everyone here is just glad to have it behind them.

CHADWICK: NPR's Rob Gifford with us from London. Rob, thanks so much. We'll look for more answers as this story develops over the next couple of days.

GIFFORD: Thanks, Alex.

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