Iran: Do Sailor Releases Signal a Nuke Thaw?

Tehran made the most of its propaganda coup Wednesday as a grinning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent his British captives home with a handshake. And beyond the abrupt end of the 13-day crisis, there were signs the Iranians may be looking for a way out of much bigger problem: Tehran's growing isolation over its nuclear-enrichment program.

Shortly after Ahmadinejad announced the release of the 15 British sailors and Marines taken prisoner after Tehran claimed they had trespassed in Iranian waters, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, returned a long-delayed phone call to the European Union's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana. The two diplomats discussed sitting down for the first time since February, Solana's spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, told NEWSWEEK. "The Iranians were in a mood to talk today, which was not the case a few days before," she said. "The prospects of a meeting are there."

While nothing has been agreed upon yet—not even a time and place for such a meeting—Gallach said the two sides remained open to the concept of a "double suspension." In order to start talks, in other words, the Europeans and Americans would agree to halt the United Nations sanctions process against Tehran while the Iranians simultaneously stop enriching uranium. Previous efforts to achieve such a basis for negotiations have foundered, partly because of Iran's insistence that any such suspension be temporary and that Tehran must be allowed to retain its enrichment program in some fashion, even under oversight by an international consortium. The U.S. position, backed by the Europeans, is that Iran cannot be permitted any enrichment capability.

Larijani is a peculiar figure in Iranian politics, a powerful minister who often bridges the divide between the Islamist hard-liners and the moderates in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With impeccable Iranian Revolutionary Guard credentials—Larijani is from a prominent clerical family and was a Revolutionary Guard commander after the 1979 Islamist revolution—he has also often found a way to keep the nuclear dialogue with West going. And after being quoted as taking a hard-line position in the early days of the British maritime crisis—at one point, Larijani hinted the British captives might face trial—he apparently played a part in resolving that issue as well.

According to British news accounts, the thaw between Tehran and London apparently began after Larijani contacted Channel 4 News in London, telling the TV station in an interview  Monday that Iran wanted a diplomatic solution. Nigel Sheinwald, Prime Minister Tony Blair's foreign-affairs private secretary, then spoke to Larijani by phone and talks reportedly ensued. It was not immediately clear what spurred the radical Ahmadinejad and his boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to release the prisoners, which the Iranian president called a "gift to the people of Britain." One source close to the Iranian government told NEWSWEEK: "The British promised not to do it again"—apparently a pledge that Britain would not intrude upon Iranian territory, airspace or waters in the future. However, a British diplomat who agreed to speak about the release on condition of anonymity said that "absolutely no deal was struck." He said that Larijani played a role, but only after he was given the green light to do so by his superiors. The only real talks between Britain and Iran occurred when Tehran sent a formal diplomatic note to London late last week asking Britain to give some of assurance that "this would not happen again," and floating the idea that "technical" talks might be the way out, he said. The British responded with a note on Friday saying that delegations should be sent. But no apology was asked for, and the next time the British heard from Tehran at all was when Ahmadinejad held his news conference in public today. Asked what the breakthrough moment might have been, one Western official who was privy to the back and forth of the talks responded: "I think frankly the balance of power inside Tehran shifted very much in our favor. A lot of that has to do with the fact that sensible people got back to Tehran after the holidays"—the Iranian new year.

Even so, in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian announcement, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack pleaded ignorance about Larijani's role in the captive crisis. "We'd have to understand that the decision-making processes within the Iranian government," he said. "Quite frankly, we don't have a great deal of insight to that. It's an opaque regime." U.S. officials were quick to reiterate President's Bush's uncompromising stance that Iran suspend enrichment before Washington comes to the table. That may not give Larijani and Solana much to talk about if they do end up meeting again. But at least the two sides are dug back into to their old rut of mutual mistrust, rather than peering into the abyss.