Who Got the British Sailors Released?

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British navy personnel, seized by Iran, wave to the media after their meeting with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the presidential palace in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 4, 2007.

The President of Iran was clearly relishing his role as beneficent liberator of the 15 British Marines and sailors detained by Iran for nearly two weeks. At a press conference today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the release a "gift to the British people" on the occasion of Easter as well as a commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. The smiling President then met with the British detainees, nodding his head munificently as they lined up to offer thanks for their release. "It is for Islam," he reminded one. He joked to another: "You ended up on a compulsory visit, didn't you?"

As much as today's events appeared to be another episode of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad show, the Iranian president's actual role in ending the crisis may have been less than meets the eye. The office of the presidency in Iran does not really have a say in matters of foreign policy. Indeed, British analysts were quick to credit another political personage for the resolution of the drama. John Williams, the former Director of News of Britain's Foreign Office, asserts that Dr. Ali Larijani, the secretary general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was more important in calling the shots. "It seems that around the weekend, Dr. Larijani decided to settle this and took control," says Williams. "He has proved himself a significant power broker, a man who, if he feels it is in Iran's best interests, will do business with the international community." Other observers warn against giving Larijani too much credit. Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, they say, may have decided that Iran had squeezed as much advantage out of the situation as possible and simply got Larijani to do the legwork to end the crisis.

Observers in Britain don't doubt that the release of the detainees was in Iran's best interest. "If the saga had dragged on, it would have led to an escalation of international opinion against Iran," says Chris Rundle, a former British diplomat in Iran, noting that it took Iran 13 days to coordinate its policy. Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's former ambassador to the U.S., describes the decision as "a shrewd move. The detainees were a wasting asset." The sudden announcement also reinforced a sense that Iran, and not Britain, was dictating the pace.

Having Ahmadinejad deliver the breakthrough news may have been intended to buttress that image. He remains a symbol of Tehran's defiance of the West, and, for a politician of limited power, Ahmadinejad still knows how to play his role to maximum advantage. Nazenin Ansari, the diplomatic correspondent of the London-based Persian-language weekly Kayhan, believes he and Iran's hardliners have benefited from the showdown with Britain. "What we have seen is a shift to the right," she says. Reformists had been making progress, but "in Iran politics is all about changing the atmosphere. The current has now shifted in the same way it did during the 1979 hostage crisis."

In his press conference, Ahmadinejad said the captives would have been let go sooner but that the "British government behaved badly, and so it took a little while." When asked what prompted the sudden release, he said London had sent a letter promising that such incidents would not be repeated. While careful to point out that the British sailors were being released "as a gift, and not as a result of the letter," the president's reference to a British concession served as a face-saving device, rationalizing the sudden release after much clamor in Iran for a possible trial of the British service personnel.

The Iranian leadership — including Larijani, Ahmadinejad and certainly Khamenei — believes that Tehran's popularity among the world's Muslims, particularly for its face-off against America, gives it leverage in dealing with the West. "Iranians had bruised egos because of international pressure over their nuclear program and the detentions of their personnel by the U.S. in Iraq," says Ansari. "What we've seen is a public relations exercise to take command of the Arab street once again." Says Shahid Malik, one of the first Muslims elected to Britainís parliament: "This was yet another example of how adept Ahmadinejad is at communications in the way he targets the Muslim and non-Muslim world." During the press conference, Ahmadinejad made the expected jabs at the West, referring to the U.N. Security Council as "an organization they've created" and its resolutions as "pieces of paper they keep passing." He then accused Britain of involvement in a series of bombings in Iran's ethnic minority provinces in the past two years, while saying he would avoid going into detail lest the session "turn bitter."

Downing Street welcomed the move with public caution and mopped brows behind closed doors. As the crisis dragged on, government sources acknowledged that Iran's intransigence was exposing Britain's comparative impotence. It had failed to secure a strong denunciation of Iran's actions from the U.N. Security Council; its European allies were balancing support for Britain against their business interests; and although Prime Minister Tony Blair warned a failure to reach a quick resolution would lead to a "new phase" in response to the detentions, nobody detected in his words the martial sounds of rattling sabers. "There's no mood here for military adventures in Iran or elsewhere," says Malik. "Iraq wasn't what we thought it would be. There's a somber mood in this country."