Well, talk about making lemonade out of lemons. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced a "pardon" for the 15 British sailors and Marines just a few moments ago, and promises to have them flown out of Iran within the next couple of hours:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran will pardon and set free 15 British sailors and marines being held in Iranian custody.
"I declare that the people of Iran and the government of Iran -- in full power to place on trial the military people -- to give amnesty and pardon to these 15 people and I announce their freedom and their return to the people of Britain," Ahmadinejad told a news conference.
He said the Britons would be taken to the airport after the news conference. The action was a goodwill gesture for the Iranian new year which began last week, he said.
A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "We are looking at what has been said."
Ahmadinejad makes the most out of the reversal. Facing the threat of a blockade if Iran pressed this any further, he gets to look magnanimous while still maintaining the notion that he could have tried the sailors for espionage, even while dressed in uniform. It's a net win, allowing the Iranians to feel as though they won a tactical victory while avoiding having to back up their rhetoric with action.
Whether this is a win for Tony Blair remains to be seen. He stuck with negotiations and got the 15 back, and he didn't have to apologize for a violation that never occurred. On the surface, it looks great -- an end to the crisis without a shot being fired. It's what happened below the surface and behind the scenes that will determine how Blair fared against Ahmadinejad. What did the British have to give up in order to get their personnel back?
Iranian state media reported Wednesday that an Iranian envoy will be allowed to meet the five Iranians detained in January by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil. ...
"A representative from the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad will meet" the detained Iranians, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said.
U.S. troops detained the five Iranians when it raided their office in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone, on Jan 11. The troops also confiscated computers and documents.
So far, CENTCOM says they have no information regarding this meeting. It's possible that the Iranians have planted the story in their state-run media to give themselves cover for what could be seen as a retreat from the confrontation that the Revolutionary Guards provoked. That would also explain the invocation of Mohammed as part of the reason for the release. Even if it turns out to be true, it doesn't seem like much of a concession on the part of the US and UK.