Fifteen British sailors and marines freed from captivity in Tehran began two weeks’ leave with their families Saturday, while Iran’s ambassador to London urged Britain to help his nation mend relations with the international community.
Ambassador Rasoul Movahedian told the Financial Times newspaper in an article published Saturday that Iran had “showed our goodwill” by freeing the Britons.
“Now it is up to the British government to proceed in a positive way,” he was quoted as saying. “We will welcome in general any steps that could defuse tensions in the region.”
The British mariners, captured in the Persian Gulf on March 23, were freed Wednesday by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called their release a gift to Britain.
Iran seeks goodwill gesture
Movahedian told the Financial Times that the release of the British crew was not connected to the fate of five Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq. U.S. officials said last week that Iran would be granted access to the detainees, but denied the decision was linked to the fate of British crew. Britain also has denied a link.
But Movahedian indicated help from the British on the matter would be appreciated.
“If they want to be helpful and use their influence we will welcome that. ... We will welcome in general any steps that could defuse tensions in the region,” he said.
Movahedian called on Britain to use the resolution of the crisis as a chance to “establish sensible lines of communication with Iran.”
He said the key issue for Iran was recognition from the West of its right to a nuclear power program.
“That’s the prime issue for Iran and I think that could help set a new basis for our future relations with Western countries,” he said.
Pope sent letter to Iran’s top cleric
The United States and allies, including Britain, fear Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program under cover of its civilian nuclear program. Iran denies this, insisting it seeks to use the program only for nuclear energy.
Britain’s Foreign Office had no immediate comment on the Iranian ambassador’s remarks. A spokesman said officials “will need time to assess the implication for diplomatic relations with Iran” of the crew’s accounts of their treatment in detention.
The newspaper said Movahedian spoke before several crew members described Friday how they had been blindfolded, bound, kept in solitary confinement and subjected to psychological pressure during their captivity.
The Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI had written to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to intercede for the release of the crew. Vatican officials declined to give details of the letter, although The Guardian newspaper reported that the letter had asked Iran to free the crew in time for Sunday’s Easter holiday as a religious gesture of goodwill.
The sailors’ said during their Friday press conference that they were coerced into saying they had been in Iranian waters when they were detained.
Marine describes captivity
In a newspaper interview, marine Danny Masterton said he had feared he would be killed in Iranian custody and his body dragged through the streets of Tehran.
The sailor, of Muirkirk, Scotland, said the mariners were frequently interrogated and kept in dirty prison cells. On one occasion, guards cocked weapons and lined the crew against a wall.
“It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I thought my time had come and just waited for the bang,” Masterton said in an interview with Scotland’s Sunday Mail newspaper, editions of which were available late Saturday.
“All I could think about was my family, and all I could hope was that they would send my dead body home and not drag it through the streets or bury it in a hole in the ground somewhere.”
Iran dismissed the sailors’ news conference as propaganda — just as Britain condemned the crew members’ frequent appearances on Iranian TV during their captivity.
Can sell stories to media
The sailors will be allowed to sell their stories to the media, in a break with usual rules, Britain's Defence Ministry said on Saturday.
Serving personnel were not normally allowed to sell their stories but the ministry decided to grant the 15 permission due to the huge media interest, said a ministry spokeswoman. "These are considered to be exceptional circumstances," she said.
The British crew was detained while patrolling for smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran.
Despite the resolution of the crisis, tensions in the Persian Gulf remain high. The U.S. has two aircraft carrier groups off Iran’s coast, its largest show of force in the region since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Guardian reported Saturday that the U.S. military offered to mount “aggressive patrols” over Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases after the sailors and marines were captured.
The newspaper, which did not name its sources, said Britain had declined the offer and asked the U.S. to tone down its military activity in the Gulf. The Guardian said U.S. forces “modified their exercises to make them less confrontational.”
The British Foreign Office declined to comment on the report.