Reporter's Notebook: Caught Off Guard

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched into a religious sermon about good and evil, tyranny and humanity, on Day 13 of captivity for the 15 British sailors, I really wondered where this would end.

Were we in for more of the same, a lashing out at the West and songs of praise for Iran, all wound up in religious discourse? And what about the sailors? We were all craving some news as turbaned intelligence chiefs and gray-suited Foreign Ministry officials and frantic journalists piled into the auditorium of the Presidential Palace under a big poster with the slogans of Muslim Unity Week.

Instead of news, we all thought were in for a lengthy critique of Western policy in the Middle East, Ahmadinejad-style. The press conference would take some unexpected twists, but it would take the better part of an hour to get to the headline.

Twist No. 1: Praise for those Revolutionary Guardsmen who arrested the 15 British sailors in the Shaat al-Arab waterway. The president ceremoniously pinned a medal on the commander of the unit that took the sailors, followed by a warning that Iran would be ever-more vigilant of its borders. We glanced at one another with raised eyebrows. This cannot mean good news for the sailors.

But suddenly, the twist-de-resistance at a moment when most people's minds were starting to wander: Ahmadinejad announced that in honor of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad and the holiday of Easter, he had a gift for the British people. The sailors would be freed. He added only that, though they had entered Iranian waters (Iran has not changed its position there), he hoped that Tony Blair would not punish them. Then he went out and warmly greeted and chatted with those people who just days ago were being called invaders and possibly even spies from arrogant countries.

But just before he went to congratulate the sailors on their freedom and to wish them well, Ahmadinejad invited the press to ask him questions.

We again looked at each other. What was left to ask? Of course, we knew the details of whatever deal was struck with Great Britain would remain for now the secret of those who actually helped bring this to a conclusion, so there was little point asking. And since the Iranian president had ended his press conference on an up note, it didn’t really seem the time to ask if he was thinking about stopping uranium enrichment. So where to now?

Ahmadinejad announced he’d turn first to the big news organizations — we’d all put our names on a list. When he called Fox News to the podium as one of the first, I fidgeted with my mandatory headscarf, started throwing thoughts together and hurried over to the microphones, rather surprised that we were plucked from the pool so early.

Essentially I said that since he had granted the sailors their freedom in the spirit of the Prophet’s birthday, Easter and Passover, I would ask a diplomatic question: what was Ahmadinejad willing to do to help build bridges between Iran and America? Without ruling out re-establishing relations between the two countries, he threw the ball back into America’s court. It was America, he said, that needs to change its behavior, and then maybe Iran would adjust its position.

I guess I shouldn’t have expected more, given the early part of his presser, full of anti-U.S. rhetoric, but I had hoped that in the spirit of the holidays of all three monotheistic religions, and given that Ahmadinejad was on a charitable roll, we’d get something similarly generous about the future of U.S.-Iran relations. That apparently was not to be today.

But the sailors are going home. And the day before they weren’t.