Five Iranian officials held in Iraq for more than two years by US forces returned home on Sunday after the US released them under pressure from the Iraqi government.
US officials said a security agreement with Iraq required that they hand the men over, but said they fear the Iranians — held on suspicion of aiding Shiite militants — pose a threat to US troops in Iraq.
The five men were handed over to Iraqi officials on Thursday and on Sunday flew to Tehran, where they were met at the airport by a cheering crowd of onlookers who carried the men on their shoulders and put garlands of flowers around their necks.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in a news conference with the men welcomed them back and praised what he described as their courageous resistance while being held in Iraq by US forces.
The Iranians were detained in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January 2007. At the time US authorities said the men included the operations chief and other members of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants.
Iran denied the claim and has described the men as diplomats who were kidnapped by US forces. Mottaki accused US President Barack Obama of continuing the bullying practices of his predecessor.
“Iran preserves its right for legal action against the bullying act of the [former US president] Bush administration in detaining Iranian diplomats, which was unfortunately continued in the new administration,” Mottaki was quoted as saying by Iranian television.
The US has long charged that Iran is behind much of the violence in Iraq and has been financing and assisting Shiite militias in attacks against US and Iraqi forces.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said earlier that the transfer, part of a US-Iraq security pact to hand over Iraqi and foreign detainees in US custody, would help improve dialogue between the US and Iran after a decades-long adversarial relationship.
Iran and Iraq have enjoyed better relations after the US-led invasion in 2003 toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, who launched an eight-year war against Iran in the early 1980s.
Many current Iraqi leaders were in exile in Iran and still have close ties with Tehran.
The release of the five has been portrayed in Iran as a victory for the Islamic Republic at a time when the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under domestic and international criticism following the disputed June 12 presidential election and the ensuing government crackdown on postelection protests.
The opposition claims the election, in which Ahmadinejad was declared the overwhelming winner, was fraudulent and has staged protest rallies calling for Ahmadinejad’s ouster.
Iran and the US have no diplomatic relations since 1979 when militant students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took Americans there hostage for 444 days.