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Blair Says New Dialogue Possible With Iran Following Sailors' Release


British Prime Minister Tony Blair sees the possibility of forging a different relationship with Iran, now that his country's sailors and marines have been released unharmed. And even before the British naval crew landed in London the European Union announced that the EU and Iran have begun discussing a possible reopening of discussions about Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Experts in Washington are cautious, however; some see little hope for an easy resolution of the larger dispute. VOA's Jim Fry reports:

Back in their British military uniforms, the naval crew held in Iran for the past two weeks is back on home turf, safe and sound. The 15 sailors and marines were freed after what British Prime Minister Tony Blair describes as "a bilateral dialogue."

"It is correct that over the past couple of weeks there have been new and interesting lines of communications opened up with the Iranian regime, and it's sensible for us to continue to pursue those," he said.

Blair says the dialogue -- while not a negotiation -- created the possibility for a different relationship with Iran ...even as the world's attention turns, once again, to Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

In Washington, an expert on the Iranian government -- Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- holds out little hope for a similar resolution of the nuclear dispute.

"Despite this grand drama, the bottom lines of each country regarding the nuclear issue have not really changed," he said.

Sadjadpour says Iran continues to assert its sovereign right to maintain nuclear facilities, though he believes Iran has not yet made the decision to develop nuclear weapons.

The U.S., the British and other European allies, fearing an Iranian bomb, insist Iran must suspend uranium enrichment before there are any negotiations.

Some experts believe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weakened his government's regional and international standing by holding the British prisoners.

"I think that they have placed in some jeopardy their relationship with Russia and their relationship with China," adds John Calabrese of the Middle East Institute.

Others say the Iranian government strengthened its position in "the Islamic streets" of the Middle East... and that releasing the Britons without significant consequences will buttress the Iranian position.

"It will convince them that they can continue to pursue nuclear weapons very aggressively and not face a strong response from Britain or the larger western world," says former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton.

Before the detainees' return was announced, President Bush said the course Iran was following would increase its isolation from the rest of the world.

President Ahmadinejad lectured the West at length before announcing (the following day / on Wednesday April 4) that he would release the Britons.

The depth of mistrust and ill will between the two leaders could be too deep to expect nuclear reconciliation.

"I think we should set the bar a bit lower and ... that we should try to avoid confrontation during these next two years. And then, once both of these presidents are out office, we can really work on doing a deal," says Sadjadpour.

Mr. Blair sees "new possibilities" for relations with Iran, but he also holds to the hard- line "The international community has got to remain absolutely steadfast in enforcing its will -- whether it is in respect of nuclear [proliferation] or in respect of support of any part of the Iranian regime for terrorism."

In the end, Mr. Blair says, the choice for reconciliation over other matters is one that Iran will have to make.

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