Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, April 02, 2007

"Forgotten history of the Iran-UK hostage-taking incident," April 2, 2007.

Iran's arrest of 15 British sailors in disputed waters of the Persian Gulf and the risk of war merits a summary of the context for these events in the broadest possible terms. When Adrienne Arsenault first reported the incident on CBC-TV's Morning news, she was reminded of a similar one in 2004 before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been elected. A smaller group of British soldiers was captured in the same waters. Iranian authorities extracted “apologies” from them, paraded them, blindfolded, before TV cameras and then, in short order, released them.

This time 15 sailors and marines from the British naval ship HMS Cornwall were captured on March 23, 2007, after they had searched a boat suspected of smuggling cars in the Shatt-al-Arab region of the Persian Gulf. Iranian authorities allege that the sailors were in Iranian waters when they were seized; British Prime Minister Tony Blair, strongly denies this and has produced what he claims is GPS evidence to prove it.

Captured Iranians

Not everyone was reminded immediately of the 2004 incident. For news organizations outside of North America the status of five Iranian officials captured in a US military raid on what has been described as a liaison office in northern Iraq on January 11 is an ongoing and possibly related mystery.

In that case, the American soldiers confiscated files and computers. One diplomat was released, but the other five men remain in US custody and have not been formally charged with any crime.

Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in the White House under president Jimmy Carter said, "They have disappeared. I don't know if they've gone into the enemy combatant system....Nobody on the outside knows."

Hardliners inside Iran have asked the government not to release the British sailors until the Iranian diplomats have been returned. (Escobar)

There are now good reasons to believe the US has also orchestrated the kidnapping of a former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps general in Istanbul but this has not yet been integrated into the fabric of negotiations or news reporting since the general was originally described as a “defector.” (Abedin Atol Mar 31 07)

The embassy hostages of 1979-81

For those considering a longer time frame, the current incident in the Gulf may recall the American hostage crisis of 1979-81. From November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, a group of militant university students who were supported by the Islamic regime, held 63 American diplomats posted in Teheran and three additional US citizens hostage inside the American diplomatic mission in Teheran. They released several captives, but 52 hostages remained until the conclusion of the crisis. During the crisis, the US attempted a rescue operation code-named Operation Eagle Claw. The operation ended in a disaster and resulted in the deaths of eight American Marines. The perceived inept handling of the crisis by Jimmy Carter, then US President, contributed to his defeat by Ronald Reagan in the Presidential elections of November, 1980. On January 20,1981, the Iranians released the hostages shortly after Reagan had taken his oath of office.

B Raman of the South Asia Analysis Group reminds us of a common thread between that hostage crisis and the present one--Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Following the success of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ahmadinejad became a member of the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU) and reportedly supported the decision of its Central Committee to storm the US Embassy in Teheran and take the American diplomats hostage. It is rumoured that he wanted the students to raid the Soviet Embassy too, but the Central Committee did not agree to it."

History teaches us that the current crisis could go on for years, that military action could fail, and that the regime in Tehran has successfully managed similar episodes in the past.

Destabilizing Iran

John Bradley, writing in the current issue of the Washington Quarterly recalls that in 2001, “Tehran promised to repatriate any US airmen who had to land in Iran as a result of damage sustained in combat operations in Afghanistan.”

But today, Bradley writes, “"The Pentagon is especially interested in whether Iran is prone to a violent fragmentation along the same kinds of faultlines that are splitting Iraq and that helped to tear apart the Soviet Union with the collapse of communism."

As early as December 2002, during the final months before the American invasion of Iraq, Noam Chomsky pointed out that even then quote "war with Iran is probably underway."

Chomsky claimed that about 12% of the Israeli air force was in southeastern Turkey at that time because they were preparing for the war against Iran and quote “flying at the Iranian border for intelligence, provocation and so on.” endquote

Chomsky also noted quote “claims that there are efforts to stir up Azeri separatism....that would separate Iran, or what's left of Iran, from the Caspian oil producing centres. Then you could partition it," Chomsky said. (Interview, December 28, 2002).

By February 2005, several reporters including Dafna Linzer at the Washington Post and Paul Rogers at openDemocracy confirmed that the US had been sending aerial drones into Iran “for nearly a year.” (Rogers Iranian options Feb 24 05).

In June 2005, Scott Ritter the former US Marine intelligence officer and one-time chief weapons inspector in Iraq confirmed Chomsky's suspicion that CIA paramilitary operatives and US Special Operations units were training with Azeri forces to destabilize the regime in Tehran. (Ritter War with Iran Jun 20 05).

Last July, writing for the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described the belief that Bush’s goal is not to prevent the Iranians building a bomb but to drive the regime out of office as a growing conviction, not only among the Iranians but also within the US military and the so-called “international community.” (Hersh Last Stand Jul 10 06).

In a piece after the mid-term elections, Hersh noted that some Americans see the weakening of Iran as the only way to save Iraq. (Hersh The Next Act Nov 27 06)

Several times Hersh has repeated the report of an unnamed government consultant with close ties to civilians in the Pentagon that American combat troops now operating in Iran were working with minority groups in Iran, including the Azeris, in the north, the Baluchis, in the southeast, and the Kurds, in the northeast. (Hersh The Iran Plans Apr 17 06)

The same consultant tells Hersh that “In the past six months, Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran.... (An Israeli government spokesman denied that Israel was involved.)” (Hersh The Next Act)

Former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar believes that the US is sponsoring trans-border terrorism from inside Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In mid-February, “a militant group called Jundallah killed 11 members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards in an attack in the city center of Zahedan. Iranian state media reported that the attack was part of US plans to provoke ethnic and religious violence in Iran” (Bhadrakumar Foreign devils Feb 24 07).

Bhadrakumar again “The irony is that Afghanistan is being put to use as a launch pad by the US for sponsoring terrorism directed against Iran, when the raison d'etre of the US occupation of Afghanistan during the past five years has been for the stated purpose of fighting a 'war on terrorism'. Besides, Iranian cooperation at a practical level went a long way in facilitating the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Even Iran's detractors would admit that during the past five years, Tehran has followed a policy of good-neighborliness toward the Kabul government, no matter Washington's dominance over President Hamid Karzai. In fact, Iran figures as a major donor country contributing to Afghanistan's reconstruction.”

Still, “Tehran is used to the US stratagem,” Bhadrakumar says, “Sponsoring terrorist activities inside Iran has been a consistent feature of US regional policy over the past quarter-century.”

Stratfor, a think-tank with close connections to the US military and security establishment, says "The US-Iranian standoff has reached a high level of intensity ... a covert war [is] being played out ... the United States has likely ramped up support for Iran's oppressed minorities in an attempt to push the Iranian regime toward a negotiated settlement over Iraq" (Qtd Foreign devils).

Regional Response

America’s allies in the Gulf worry that an attack on Iran would endanger them.

Michel Samaha, a veteran Lebanese Christian politician and former cabinet minister in Beirut, told Hersh that the Iranian retaliation might be focussed on oil and gas fields in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. (Hersh Last Stand)

President Sheikh Khalifa of the United Arab Emirates, an important ally of the US in the Persian Gulf, told Arab newspaper al-Hayat that “we... will not allow our territories to be used for any military, security or spy activities” against Iran.

Qatar is rightly worried about what the US will do and how Iran will respond. Qatar is the location for the regional headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, likely Iran's first target in the event of an American attack. Qatar is also a leading exporter of gas and currently operates several major offshore oil platforms, which would be vulnerable to attack. (Hersh Last Stand)

Pepe Escobar over at Asia Times notes that Shatt-al-Arab where the British sailors were arrested is “a busy and tricky waterway, to say the least. Iraqi fishing boats share the waters with Iranian patrol boats. From the Iraqi shore one can see the Iranian shore, flags aflutter. These remain extremely disputed waters. In 1975, a treaty was signed in Algiers between the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. The center of the river was supposed to be the border. Then Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. After the Iran-Iraq War that this sparked ended in 1988, and even after both Gulf wars, things remain perilously inconclusive: a new treaty still has not been signed. “

Tony Blair wouldn't try to sex up the evidence on this, would he?

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