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Iranian Leader Surprises British with Release


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.



And I'm Melissa Block.

Iran's president is calling their release an Easter gift to the British people. Fifteen British sailors and Marines are being freed after spending nearly two weeks in Iranian custody. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced their release at a news conference in Tehran today. Coming up, analysis of what Iran may and may not have gained from the ordeal.

First, NPR's Rob Gifford begins our coverage in London.

ROB GIFFORD: President Ahmadinejad's news conference had initially been postponed from yesterday, and some had been expecting a reiteration of Iran's hard line that Britain must apologize.

For nearly an hour the president lectured Britain on its imperial history in the region and on the war in Iraq and he even pinned a medal on the coast guard commander responsible for intercepting the British sailors and marines nearly two weeks ago. Then suddenly, speaking through an interpreter, he announced the captives would be released.


President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator) I - although we have every right to put them on trial, but I want to give them, give this one as a present to the British people, to say that they are all free. Instead of occupying the other countries, I ask Mr. Blair to think about the justice - to think about the truth and work for the British people, not for himself.

(Soundbite of applause)

GIFFORD: The announcement caught many by surprise, including apparently the sailors themselves. Iranian television said the British captives had watched Ahmadinejad's news conference live and were ecstatic when a translator told them what the president had said.

Soon, in a piece of carefully orchestrated political theater, pictures were being beamed from Iran of President Ahmadinejad shaking hands and chatting through an interpreter with some of the Navy crew.

President AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator): How are you?

Unidentified Man: I'm fine thank you.

President AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator): So - a kind of a compulsory trip for you.

Unidentified Man: Well, (unintelligible) right now, but you could call it that.

GIFFORD: Ahmadinejad emphasized that this was a gesture of goodwill, saying he was freeing the captives on the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet Mohammad and for the occasion of the passing of Christ at Easter. When some of the dust of the sudden announcement had cleared, Tony Blair emerged from his office at Number 10 Downing Street to speak to reporters. He said the release of the crew was a profound relief.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Britain): I'm glad that the 15 service personnel have been released. Throughout we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either.

GIFFORD: Blair thanked British allies in Europe, on the U.N. Security Council and in the Middle East for their help in securing the freedom of the Royal Navy personnel. Syrian officials later claimed Damascus had played a key role in resolving the standoff. Blair also had a message for the Iranian people themselves.

Prime Minister BLAIR (Britain): 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 a dialogue.

GIFFORD: The families of the 15 Britons were understandably elated at the news. Nathan Summers was one of the sailors who'd confess to entering Iranian waters on Iranian television. His father, Roy, reacted first with disbelief and then with absolute joy.

Mr. ROY SUMMERS (Father): Oh, I was just over the moon. I just couldn't believe it, to be perfectly honest. I thought it was another mindgame ploy by the Iranians. Now I just can't explain how, you know, how happy I am. Best Easter present ever.

GIFFORD: In his speech, President Ahmadinejad said the British government had sent a letter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry pledging that entering waters will not happen again. The British Foreign Office would not reveal what was in the note, but it reiterated its position that the sailors were detained in Iraqi not Iranian waters. Family members in Britain said they expected to meet their relatives at London's Heathrow Airport tomorrow.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.