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Amanpour: Troop release unlikely to defuse tensions with Iran

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised many international observers Wednesday when he said his government would pardon and free 15 British sailors and marines captured last month.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair thanked Britain's allies and the U.N. Security Council for their support. "To the Iranian people I would simply say this: We bear you no ill will," Blair said in a brief statement.

CNN anchor Tony Harris spoke with CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour about the latest development in the crisis. On March 23, Iranian coast guard members seized the Britons from a cargo ship, accusing them of entering Iranian waters in the north Persian Gulf.

HARRIS: How is all of this going to work out?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, hard to say, but the president of Iran has said that these people are amnestied and pardoned and in his press conference said they would be released after the press conference. ...

The press conference was postponed. It was due to happen yesterday. Finally, he announced today they were going to be pardoned and released.

And he has also called on Prime Minister Blair to, quote, "I request that the government of Prime Minister Blair not to question these people or place them on trial for speaking the truth." And what he means is precisely what some of the pictures that we've been showing with the pictures of some of the marines, Faye Turney and the others, talking about having crossed into Iranian waters, apologizing for having crossed into Iranian waters, quote, unquote, confessions.

President Ahmadinejad has asked Prime Minister Blair in that press conference there not to take it out on the sailors. He's also said that the Iranian government regrets that the prime minister -- Prime Minister Blair's government is, quote, "not brave enough" to admit it was inside Iranian waters, so Iran [is] clearly sticking to its own position they were inside Iranian waters.

I think that certainly the timing [was an issue]. I would say the fact that Britain and Iran have been in direct negotiation over this for at least the last day or so with Ali Larijani, the civilian head of the national security agency there, considered more of a diplomat in terms of comparison with the president and some of his more staunch supporters, certainly more of a diplomat than the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who arrested them [is significant].

And also the fact it's Easter. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, [which] begins the very solemn and then joyous celebration of the Christian holiday of Easter, and President Ahmadinejad saying that this pardon and this amnesty, quote, unquote, was a "gift" to the British people.

HARRIS: How decisive do you think the decision to turn the matter over to a man who is considered more of a diplomat. ... was that in bringing this ... standoff to an end?

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm sure it was decisive, but I think a lot of this was being played out across the airwaves. Obviously, Britain has an ambassador. Britain has bilateral relations with Iran, has a functioning embassy and an ambassador inside Tehran, and that ambassador had been speaking to the foreign minister and others for almost since the beginning of the crisis.

But ... there were sort of ups and downs to the way the rhetoric was going. And at the time, you were having comments from the Iranian military, then comments from the Iranian foreign ministry and finally it seemed to take a step back and move into serious negotiations between those most able to resolve this issue.

And I remember for me, one of the turning points was watching [British Foreign Secretary] Margaret Beckett at a [European Union] meeting a few days ago when she was asked how things were going, and she almost put the brakes on some of the public sort of hysteria that was going on, saying we must just wait, be patient.

Remember, it's an Iranian holiday. In Iran, it's the new year. And this goes on for a long time. Government officials take two to three weeks off, and so she was trying to sort of allude to that. I thought, well, if she's making this sort of conciliatory rhetorical, diplomatic gesture, maybe things are moving in a more diplomatic way.

HARRIS: Is there a chance through what the Iranian president will certainly hope is viewed as a goodwill gesture that Iran is under so much pressure in so many areas now -- you mentioned the EU and certainly the Security Council over its nuclear program -- is there a chance that this move might begin in some way to ratchet down some of the pressure that is obviously on Iran from the international community?

AMANPOUR: That's a really interesting question because it totally doesn't seem to be likely that the United States government or the British government are going to change their positions on Iran's nuclear program. And that is the big issue that stands between Iran and the West right now.

Obviously, peripherally, you also have the situation of the U.S. accusing Iran of negative interference in Iraq and ... the capture of the five Iranian diplomats sort of brought things to a head and these things are viewed ... with great sort of suspicion by Iran and Iran continues to be defiant over its nuclear program, continuing to maintain that this is a peaceful nuclear program that we're doing within our rights as signatories to the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So I think the tension over that will continue, and I think perhaps releasing the British sailors will bring things back to the status quo ante rather than making some great leap forward into the arms of mutual engagement.


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CNN's Christiane Amanpour

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