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Press round-up: A lesson in 'quiet diplomacy'

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The sudden release of 15 British detainees held in Iran for the past two weeks was welcomed in the British press on Thursday as a triumph for old-fashioned diplomacy.

But some newspapers wondered whether a secret deal was struck behind the scenes to resolve the crisis and worried what the saga meant for the UK's reputation in the Middle East.

The Guardian described Wednesday's lengthy press conference in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the 15 British Navy sailors and marines would be pardoned as "a sophisticated piece of political theatre, in which the president turned what had become a diplomatic disaster for Iran into something of a personal victory."

But the real lesson of the crisis had been that "quiet diplomacy does work and can work in the future," said the paper, suggesting that such an approach could also be employed by Western powers over the question of Iranian nuclear ambitions.

"A sword of Damocles heavier than anything Britain can fashion is hanging over Iran, and it is the conviction of hawks in Washington and the defense establishment in Israel that the only way Iran can be prevented from enriching uranium is to bomb it... But there is no substitute for direct negotiation, especially with a revolutionary Islamic regime in Iran, for whom the popularly held grievance about past American and British interference in the Gulf is as important as the issue in hand."

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the UK's former ambassador to Tehran, Richard Dalton, said Britain had "found a ladder for Iran to climb down" through "real discussions of substance behind the scenes" which had been vindicated by the result.

While Iran had displayed a disregard for international norms, Iran was still "more rational actor than rogue, and diplomacy is still the best way forward," said Dalton.

But the Telegraph struck a more strident note in its editorial, commenting that relief at the 15's release was tempered by dismay at the way in which they had been treated by their captors: "The satisfaction of a diplomatic challenge eventually handled with skill is soured by the string of psychological humiliations that Britain has suffered."

With a split cover showing Ahmadinejad declaring "victory" and British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaiming "rejoice," The Independent said: "We may never know what bargain, if any, was struck to obtain their freedom." But, the paper concluded, "jaw-jaw is still far, far better than war-war."

But the Times said the crisis had served as a reminder of the "pride and prickliness" of the Iranian regime: "The enduring lesson is that Iran remains highly unpredictable, an enigmatic mixture of fanaticism and pragmatism, and that the greatest victims are the people of Iran."

In Iran, many newspapers hailed the end of the crisis as a victory for the nation in the face of Western pressure with Jaam-Jam, the paper of the state broadcaster, claiming it marked the "humiliation of the powers" while demonstrating Iran's commitment to peace.

"Their freedom had two clear messages. The first showed Iran's might in confronting any aggression and intrusion. The second message was prevention of international tension between Iran and the rest of countries."

Resalat called the affair "a slap in the face" for "those countries that think they can violate Iran's territory."

But reformist papers wondered whether Ahmadinejad had backed down from confrontation too quickly.

"Is the punishment for spying an apology and if there is no apology should spying be merited with freedom? Are we going to have such retreats in the future?" asked Ayandeh-No.

"Iran has repeatedly said that Britain should apologize but Britain did not do any such thing. We should ask this question of Mr President 'why such a clear retreat?'"

Etemad-e Melli said the sudden decision to release the 15 seemed to have stemmed from Ahmadinejad's apparent desire to be seen as an unpredictable president.

"Why did Iran wait so long to pardon the Britons? Is it because some want to prove they are unpredictable?" the paper asked. "When senior British officials offer Iran direct talks to resolve the issue ... maybe Iran could get some concessions to resolve the problems the country faces."


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A selection of headlines from British newspapers on Thursday.

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