CHIVENOR: Fifteen British military personnel freed by Iran after a two-week stand-off were reunited with their families on 5 April as attention turned to how the incident could impact on nuclear diplomacy.
The 14 men and one woman hugged and kissed tearful relatives at an air base in southwest England ahead of a debriefing session, after landing in London from Tehran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the surprise of the 15, their families and the British government, said on Wednesday he had decided to forgive and free the group, who were seized from their patrol boat in the northern Gulf on 23 March.
Iran said they had strayed into its waters but Britain said they were in Iraqi waters on a regular United Nations mission.
In a statement released several hours after their return, the 15 said their arrival at Heathrow airport had been a “dream come true” and said they would not forget the welcome.
“The past two weeks have been very difficult, but by staying together as a team, we kept our spirits up, drawing great comfort from the knowledge that our loved ones would be waiting for us on a our return,” they said in a statement read out by a Royal Marines spokesman.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed their safe return but said the death of four British soldiers in Iran’s neighbour Iraq earlier on Thursday had tempered any sense of jubilation. Two of the four killed were women, the Ministry of Defence said.
The peaceful end to the stand-off with the world’s fourth largest oil exporter prompted a drop in oil prices.
Iran said on Thursday the group had been released because Blair had sent a personal letter of apology over the incident -- a statement that was “categorically denied” by Blair’s office.
Blair said a dual-track policy of quiet diplomacy and tough international support had paid dividends, and the incident had opened up new channels of communication with Iran that it would be “sensible to pursue”.
“However, the international community has got to remain absolutely steadfast in enforcing its will, whether it’s in respect of nuclear weapons or in respect of the support of any part of the Iranian regime for terrorism,” he said.
Iran says its nuclear programme is purely for civilian purposes but the West suspects it of trying to build a bomb.
Analysts said it was positive that Blair’s top foreign policy adviser Nigel Sheinwald had talked directly to Ali Larijani, Iran’s main nuclear negotiator.
“Larijani is no moderate but he is a pragmatist and the hope has been that he would find a way to reach a face-saving deal on suspension (of uranium enrichment),” said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for Non-Proliferation at the Institute for Strategic Studies.
Other commentators said the incident would affect Britons’ view of Iran.
“Your average Briton now will be much more aware that Iran is a potential threat, despite the way it ended,” said Dan Plesch, author and commentator on nuclear proliferation at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
European Union president Germany said it hoped the incident would enhance dialogue with Tehran over its nuclear programme.
Blair said it was too early to say whether any part of the Iranian regime had been behind that attack.
“But the general picture as I said before is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq,” he added.