Sailors Released

Fifteen British military detainees walk free. One Iranian President pardons them, chats to them, and celebrates the Persian New Year by letting them go. There are smiles all round. The world breathes a sigh of relief. Diplomacy seems to be back in fashion. It was our great wartime leader Winston Churchill who coined the phrase 'jaw-jaw is always better than war-war'.

But today, post 9/11 and Iraq, it is much harder to talk to fundamentalist tyrants, let alone terrorists. So what was different in Iran? For a start there seems to have been no physical torture. The British soldiers and sailors captured in disputed waters weren't beaten up, locked away and threatened with execution - live on Al-Jazheera.

Their televised confessions seemed more like cozy sofa talk shows. They may have been on "mandatory vacation" as the Iranian President joked, but it could have been a whole lot worse. And it certainly would have become a great deal more dangerous if it had dragged on unresolved very much longer.

Part of the trade-off seems to have been the sudden release in Iraq of an Iranian diplomat, followed by the start of some serious horse-trading over five other Iranian nationals recently detained by US forces. The determination to keep on talking involved London, Washington and Syria too.

That's a good sign. Effective diplomacy is about weighing risks and responding to reason. Syria and Iran are well aware of the military capabilities of the US and the UK. We can speculate until the cows come home about how it might have played if the captives had been American servicemen instead. But speculation is part of the diplomatic game too. Keeping everyone guessing. Giving little away.

Diplomacy is a bit like Poker minus the money. It relies on bluff and the bets are placed on human lives. This time nobody lost. But, make no mistake, it is still a very risky game. This is Ed Boyle for CBS News in London.

By Ed Boyle

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