Tuesday, April 3, 2007

US secret war against Iran and the British "hostage" crisis

The Cheney-Bush policy toward Iran is wacked-out. But that doesn't mean they won't continue with it. Cheney and his collaborators, both Iran-Contra veterans and others, are in love with the virtues of secret war.

Patrick Cockburn, one of the best Western reporters on the Middle East (not to be confused with Alexander Cockburn, who is a far more ideological writer), is reporting for the Independent on
The botched US raid that led to the hostage crisis 04/03/07. Remember the raid on a facility in the city of Arbil in the Kurdish area of Iraq in which five Iranian officials were taken prisoner back in January? Those five, by the way, "have not been seen since", in Cockburn's words.

Kurdish officials said the facility was a long-standing official Iranian liaison office there. As Cockburn explains, it was also a mystery why the Americans would strike there, since it's not a Shi'a area and it has been relatively calm. "No member of the US-led coalition has been killed in Arbil and there were no Sunni-Arab insurgents or Shia militiamen there."

It turns out that the US mission, according to Cockburn's Kurdish sources and Iranian suspicions, was meant to seize two very senior Iranian intelligence officials who were on an official state visit to Iraq. Iraq, thanks to the American invasion, now has a Shi'a dominated government with strong ties and good relations to Iran. Cockburn reports:

The two senior Iranian officers the US sought to capture were Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to Kurdish officials.
Cockburn puts it in perspective this way:

The attempt by the US to seize the two high-ranking Iranian security officers openly meeting with Iraqi leaders is somewhat as if Iran had tried to kidnap the heads of the CIA and MI6 while they were on an official visit to a country neighbouring Iran, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Iran believes that Mr Jafari and Mr Frouzanda were targeted by the Americans. Mr Jafari confirmed to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, that he was in Arbil at the time of the raid.

In a little-noticed remark, Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, told IRNA: "The objective of the Americans was to arrest Iranian security officials who had gone to Iraq to develop co-operation in the area of bilateral security." (my emphasis)
The part I bolded illustrates the risks involved in the current US brinksmanship with Iran. Even if their perceptions are wrong about the US targeting those two officials, the fact that Iranians very likely believe that - Cockburn says there is "no doubt" that the Iranians take that view - in itself becomes part of the reality.

Cockburn suggests strongly that the Iranian seizure of the British soldiers is a calculated response to that Arbil raid, in particular:

It seemed strange at the time that the US would so openly flout the authority of the Iraqi President and the head of the KRG simply to raid an Iranian liaison office that was being upgraded to a consulate, though this had not yet happened on 11 January. US officials, who must have been privy to the White House's new anti-Iranian stance, may have thought that bruised Kurdish pride was a small price to pay if the US could grab such senior Iranian officials.

For more than a year the US and its allies have been trying to put pressure on Iran. Security sources in Iraqi Kurdistan have long said that the US is backing Iranian Kurdish guerrillas in Iran. The US is also reportedly backing Sunni Arab dissidents in Khuzestan in southern Iran who are opposed to the government in Tehran. On 4 February soldiers from the Iraqi army 36th Commando battalion in Baghdad, considered to be under American control, seized Jalal Sharafi, an Iranian diplomat.

The raid in Arbil was a far more serious and aggressive act. It was not carried out by proxies but by US forces directly. The abortive Arbil raid provoked a dangerous escalation in the confrontation between the US and Iran which ultimately led to the capture of the 15 British sailors and Marines - apparently considered a more vulnerable coalition target than their American comrades. (my emphasis)
None of this justifies Iranian misconduct in the handling of the British prisoners situation, of course.

What it does tell us is that we should remember the incident did not occur in a vacuum. I try to avoid historical analogies, and I don't think this even qualifies as an analogy, but rather as a reminder of what government secrecy could do: in the infamous 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, at least one attack by the North Vietnamese on an American vessel occurred (the alleged second attack is a different story). But the reaction of Congress and the American public might have been significantly different if they had known more about the CIA's secret military operations against North Vietnam.

Juan Cole also writes about the internal Iranian politics of seizing British captives in
Iran's new hostage crisis Salon 04/03/07.


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