Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced that his country will free the 15 detained British sailors and marines Wednesday as an Easter holiday "gift" to the British people.
Ahmadinejad made the announcement a short time ago at a press conference in Tehran. He indicated that the British military personnel would be taken to the airport at the end of the news conference. An Iranain official in London told the Associated Press that the captured sailors and Marines would be turned over to British diplomats at the Tehran Airport. British officials are reportedly working on plans to get the former detainees out of Iran, probably in a matter of hours.
Release of the captives would end the 13-day hostage standoff between Great Britain and Iran, and give Tehran a minor propaganda victory. In his comments, Ahmadinejad stated that the British military personnel had been "pardoned," and "forgiven" for allegedly entering Iranian territorial waters--despite the fact that GPS data indicating that they were in Iraqi territory at the time of their capture. The Iranian President depicted the hostage release as a magnamious gesture by his country.
"On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) ... and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15," he said, referring to the Muslim prophet's birthday on March 30 and the Easter holiday."
What remains unclear is exactly how Iran and the U.K. managed to resolve the dispute. Yesterday, an Iranian official indicated that release of the British sailors and marines might be linked to the return of five Iranian "diplomats," captured by U.S. military forces in Irbil, Iraq on 11 January. Another Iranian official, detained by Iraqi security personnel, was released in Baghdad yesterday. So far, there has been no indication that the "Irbil 5" have been released, or that Britain has "apologized" for its "intrusion into Iranian waters," an initial condition set by Tehran for release of the U.K. military personnel.
Was there some sort of "secret" deal to secure release of the British sailors and Royal Marines? Only time will tell. At this point, it looks like the Blair government may have gained the upper hand, by remaining resolute and refusing to apologize. On the other hand, Iran may have decided that the incident had served its diplomatic and public relations purposes, and that a well-timed release was in its best interests.
There is also the chance that Iran's "powers behind the president" (the nation's senior clerics) decided that Ahmadinejad had overplayed his hand, and demanded a quick end to the crisis. It's worth remembering that Iran's "other" hostage crisis--the 19179 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and subsequent detention of our personnel for 444 days--was a disaster for the country, bringing economic and diplomatic isolation that lasted for years. With Iran already facing increased sanctions for its nuclear activities, the mullahs may have decided to quit while they were ahead, rather than face additional penalties for holding the British personnel.