WASHINGTON – The U.S. cautiously welcomed Iran's announcement that it was releasing the British soldiers and sailors, though Vice President Dick Cheney said "it was unfortunate that they were ever taken in the first place."
With the timing unclear for release of the captives — President Bush and others have called them "hostages" — administration officials reacted positively but allowed British Prime Minister Tony Blair to do the lion's share of the public talking.
"I note that Prime Minister Blair has welcomed this," Gordon Johndroe, the White House's national security spokesman, said from aboard Air Force One as Bush traveled to California. "We share his sentiments, but this is very recent information so we need to see how it develops."
Said Cheney: "I don't know all the details, obviously, but I'm glad to know that the British sailors are apparently going to be released." Iran has disputed the U.S. characterization of the sailors as hostages.
"There's considerable evidence that they were, in fact, in Iraqi territorial waters when this happened," Cheney said in an interview Wednesday with ABC News, referring to Britain's denial of Iranian claims that the crew had entered Iranian waters and thus were legitimately taken.
"And so it's one of those events that should not have happened," he added. "I think the Iranians were wrong to capture the sailors and it's good now that they have been released."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement came after Iran's state media reported that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Another Iranian diplomat, seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq, was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran.
Cheney said he didn't know if those developments or others meant there had been any quid pro quo to secure the captives' release.
"I don't think there should have been," he said, echoing Bush's repeated statements. "It's important that if you get into the business where you reward that kind of behavior, there'll be more of that kind of behavior."
Johndroe said it was unlikely there was any connection between the five Iranians detained in Iraq and the Britons' release.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said Iran had requested consular access with the five detainees Tehran maintains are diplomats, but he added that he could not say if a decision had been made about granting a visit.
"In terms of the access, there's been a request," he told reporters. "We will take that under consideration."
McCormack also said Iran had responded to a U.S. request for information about the whereabouts of an American, identified as a former FBI agent, who disappeared in Iran in early March.
He said Iran, through Swiss intermediaries, had asked for more information about the missing man to help their investigation, something the United States saw as a "reasonable and legitimate request."
"We take this request for information on the Iranians' part as actually an attempt to try to clarify who this person is, where he came in, in order to help determine where he is and what his current situation is," McCormack said. "We don't view it as any sort of throwing up any sort of obstacles on their part."
The United States and Iran have no diplomatic relations, but they do exchange information through neutral Swiss diplomats.
The missing ex-agent is Robert Levinson, 59, of Coral Springs, Fla., a U.S. official familiar with the case told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The United States says there is no connection between the British sailors and the case of the missing American, and no connection to other recent incidents involving Iranians detained by U.S. or Iraqi authorities.