CAIRO — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday pardoned and released 15 British sailors and marines detained two weeks ago in the Persian Gulf, winning what analysts described as a major propaganda coup that could bolster hard-liners in his regime.
British diplomats, caught off guard by the sudden announcement, scrambled to make arrangements for the return of the Royal Navy personnel.
A British Airways plane left Tehran before 8:30 this morning with the sailors and marines aboard.
The logjam appeared to have broken after telephone contacts Tuesday night between Ali Larijani, Iran's chief international negotiator, and Nigel Sheinwald, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief advisor on foreign affairs, who is slated to become London's ambassador to the United States.
Although Larijani is a longtime rival of Ahmadinejad within Tehran's fractious leadership, Iran observers said it was the hard-line president who probably gained the most from the standoff. Those within the country who have argued that Iran should pursue a more cautious path in Persian Gulf security matters and on the controversial issue of the nation's nuclear research lost ground, the observers said.
"Iran wanted to make a point that it cannot be bullied and that it plays hardball," said Vali Nasr of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "If anything, this is a victory for Ahmadinejad: Iran can be reckless, flex its muscles and not face consequences."
The Iranian president made the unexpected announcement during a news conference at which he pinned medals on the border patrol officers who oversaw the detention of the British naval personnel March 23.
"On the occasion of the birth anniversary of the great prophet of Islam, and on the occasion of Easter and Passover, I would like to announce that the great nation of Iran, while it is entitled to put the British military personnel on trial, has pardoned these 15 sailors and gives their release to the people of Britain as a gift," Ahmadinejad said.
The announcement followed the release in Iraq of an Iranian diplomat who had been detained in Baghdad in February, prompting the British news media to raise the specter of a "secret deal." British officials said the events were unconnected.
Also in Iraq, the U.S. military disclosed Wednesday that it was considering an informal request from Iran to allow a consular visit to five Iranians detained in Iraq since January.
Speculation about how the diplomatic standoff was resolved centered on outside parties such as Syria, Turkey, Qatar and Iraq. But it also included theories that pragmatists such as Larijani, whose duties include being Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, may have convinced the hard-line Revolutionary Guard that the political costs of a trial for the 14 men and one woman would be too high.
Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, also may have expressed a desire to let them go.
Whatever the scenario, Ahmadinejad could boast Wednesday that he had outwitted Britain, the nation that, in his view of history, has been humiliating Iran for centuries.
"As on the nuclear file, Ahmadinejad did not play the central role, but he still shapes the public diplomacy and reaps symbolic but also tangible benefits," said Emile El-Hokayem, an Iran expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
Ultimately, hard-liners dominating the discourse concluded that ending the crisis would result in domestic and regional victories, whereas prolonging it would carry great risks, El-Hokayem said.
In his Tehran news conference, Ahmadinejad said the pardon did not represent a sudden shift in Iran's position.
"I didn't change my decision suddenly. From the beginning, I didn't want to have any confrontation. We wanted our rights," he said. "The British government behaved badly, and it took longer."
He said no concessions had been offered by the British government in exchange for the release but contended that British officials had assured Iran there would be no future incursions into Iranian territory.
A British Foreign Office spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he "certainly could not confirm" that Britain offered any pledge not to "repeat" the incident.
Blair said he was glad of the release, which he said would come as a "profound relief" to the families of the detainees.
"And to the Iranian people I would simply say this: 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 dialogue," Blair said.
There were immediate celebrations in Britain at news of the impending release.
"It's been a long two weeks," said John Tindall, father of 21-year-old marine Joe Tindall. "My wife particularly, it's been hard on her, but she's probably cried twice as much today as she has the past two weeks."