British Sailers Return Home, But Questions Of Engagement Remain

The crisis over Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors ended as surprisingly as it began. A beaming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a Tehran news conference that he was "pardoning" and freeing the crew as a "gift" to the British people, in honor of the Prophet Mohammed's recent birthday and the Easter holiday.

The Royal Navy sailors flew home a day later, business class aboard a commercial airliner, carrying gifts from their captors. Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that "no deal" had been cut or "side agreements" made to secure the sailors' release. Indeed, Ahmadinejad's announcement caught Downing Street off guard. It was expecting Ahmadinejad to launch into an anti-British tirade. The crew -- stationed aboard the frigate HMS Cornwall -- was captured March 23 by Iran's Revolutionary Guard as it boarded a merchant ship as part of an antismuggling operation in the Persian Gulf.

Iran claimed the crew boat was in its waters. Britain says it was in Iraqi territory and released satellite data to back its claim. But the fluid boundary -- the Shatt al-Arab waterway -- separating the countries has long been in dispute. During the standoff, Tehran angered London by releasing videos of crew members confessing that they had trespassed into Iranian territory and offering apologies. After the press conference, they were televised personally thanking Ahmadinejad.

It's unlikely that any of the 15 will face disciplinary action for their obeisant behavior: The British military tells its troops to cooperate with their captors if taken prisoner. Defense Secretary Des Browne says they "acted with immense courage and dignity." But military expert Bob Ayers says the Cornwall's commander could face charges if an investigation finds that the rules of engagement weren't properly followed. Or it may find that those rules need fixing.

Says Ayers: "The big question is, why were they conducting a boarding operation without adequate cover in contested waters?" It's doubtful, he says, that the Iranians would have attacked a crew boat shadowed by, say, a heavily armed helicopter.

It's a question requiring a quick answer, because the Royal Navy's antismuggling operations in those dangerous seas are ongoing

By Thomas K. Grose