Friday, May 04, 2007

It's not terrorism when we kidnap people and hold them for ransom. Wonderful.

US holds Iranians as bargaining chips

By Gareth Porter (with a postscript by Tom Engelhardt)

WASHINGTON - When the administration of US President George W Bush announced in January that it was targeting Iranian officials in Iraq, it justified the policy as necessary because of the Iranians' alleged involvement in attacks on US forces.

But recent developments have underlined the reality that those Iranian officials are serving as bargaining chips in the Bush administration's effort to get Iran to use its influence with Iraqi Shi'ites to help stabilize the situation in Iraq.

The administration's decision to hold on to five Iranians seized by US troops in the Kurdish city of Irbil in January, rather than release them to reciprocate Iran's unconditional release early last month of 15 British sailors and marines captured in the Persian Gulf in March, raises the question of what calculations administration officials have been making in regard to their Iranian prisoners.

The US refusal to reciprocate the Iranian prisoner release was apparently the reason for Iran's refusal to allow Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to meet privately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the international meeting on Iraq in Egypt on Thursday and Friday.

The issue of whether to release the Iranians in light of Iran's release of the British captives was discussed at a meeting of top Bush administration officials on April 10, according to a Washington Post report by Robin Wright.

Rice argued that the administration should release the five Iranian officials because they were no longer useful. But Wright reported that an unnamed official representing Vice President Dick Cheney insisted on holding them, arguing that it would convey to Iran that even more Iranian officials in Iraq might be seized, and that Rice had "gone along with the consensus" on the issue.

The report of that discussion suggests that top administration officials are viewing their Iranian prisoners in the context of the broader diplomatic aims of the administration in regard to Iran. For the past few weeks, the Bush administration has been angling for what it calls a "dialogue" with Iran. That dialogue was supposed to have been kicked off with the Rice-Mottaki meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh and to be followed by a series of meetings.

In a speech on March 27, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signaled the administration's desire for such dialogue to get Iran to play a more cooperative role in stabilizing Iraq.

The origins of the administration's desire for such dialogue, however, appear to lie in its determination last autumn to use what it understood to be Iran's dominant influence over Shi'ite political-military leaders in Iraq to its advantage. In early October, the White House had decided simultaneously on two initiatives related to that aim.

The first was to launch a high-profile campaign of allegations that Iran was sending armor-piercing explosives to Shi'ite militias in Iraq - allegations for which administration officials had previously admitted they lacked actual evidence.

The linkage between those charges against Iran and the administration's political aim of exploiting Iran's influence over Shi'ite leaders was revealed in an unusually candid speech by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns to the Council on Foreign Relations last October 11. Immediately after repeating previous administration claims that the Iranians were behind the use of sophisticated IED (improvised explosive device) technology by Shi'ite groups against US troops, Burns said, "We expect that Iran, given its obvious interest in Iraq, and given the degree of influence that it has over parts of the Shi'ite community in Iraq, is going to now decide to act differently."

Burns thus strongly hinted that the Bush strategy was based on the assumption that Iran could coerce its Iraqi allies to do something they did not want to do and would use its political capital with Iraqi Shi'ite leaders because of pressure from the United States.

The second decision made in early October, as revealed by Rice in an interview with the New York Times on January 12, was to target for capture Iranian officials in Iraq who the administration would claim were linked to attacks on US forces in Iraq. That meant, in effect, targeting Iranians suspected of being members of the "Quds Force" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the administration blamed for supporting the Shi'ite militias in Iraq.
In subsequent public appearances, Rice refused to rule out a cross-border military operation to "disrupt activities that are endangering and killing our troops and that are destabilizing Iraq".

The administration announced its targeting strategy on January 10 just as it was seizing the five Iranian officials in Irbil. The same day, the National Broadcasting Co's Tim Russert reported that Bush and his top advisers had told a small group of journalists that the administration would not sit down with Iran until the US had gained "leverage".

The linkage of the five Iranian prisoners with a strategy to get Iran to use its influence with the Shi'ites, the refusal of the Bush administration to release the five, despite Rice's conclusion that they were no longer "useful", and the administration's pursuit of "dialogue" with Iran and Iraq all suggest that administration hardliners have regarded the Iranian prisoners from the beginning as hostages to be given up in return for Iranian cooperation on Iraq.

The Iranian rebuff to the US proposal for a Rice-Mottaki meeting makes it clear, however, that Iran will not discuss a deal involving its cooperation on Iraq for the return of its officials. In ruling out the meeting with Rice, Mottaki declared on Wednesday, "For the moment the conditions do not exist for such a dialogue."

Iran has always insisted that the US must signal a change in its policy toward Tehran before any direct diplomatic dialogue could begin. That would mean at least reciprocating Iranian gestures of goodwill, if not acknowledging that the US is prepared to address legitimate Iranian concerns about US policies.

Rice's initial suggestion that the Iranians should be released seems to reflect an awareness on the part of realists within the administration that the US cannot have a diplomatic dialogue with Iran while holding Iranian hostages as bargaining chips - and threatening to take even more. But her cave-in to the hardline position suggests that Cheney still has Bush's ear on Iran policy.

(Inter Press Service)

By Tom Engelhardt

At a news conference on Monday involving President Bush and European leaders, this exchange took place:
Q: Your secretary of state is going to a conference [on] Iraq where the foreign minister from Iran is going to be present. Do you expect her to have conversations with the foreign minister of Iran? What will she talk about? And if she does have a conversation, is there going to be a change of US foreign policy?

Bush: Should the foreign minister of Iran bump into Condi Rice, Condi won't be rude. She's not a rude person. I'm sure she'll be polite.

But she'll also be firm in reminding this representative of the Iranian government that there's a better way forward for the Iranian people than isolation ... If, in fact, there is a conversation, it will be one that says if the Iranian government wants to have a serious conversation with the United States and others, they ought to give up their enrichment program in a verifiable fashion. And we will sit down at the table with them, along with our European partners, and Russia, as well. That's what she'll tell them.
So that, as far as we know, is the full diplomatic component of the Bush administration's Iran policy. Every nuance of that policy is regularly covered in the press. Take, for instance, a recent New York Times piece by Kirk Semple and Christine Hauser ("Iran to attend regional conference"). It focused on Secretary of State Rice's comments on her willingness to talk with the Iranians should she happen to "bump into" them. ("I would not rule it out.") Included in the piece was a brief version of the US laundry list of complaints about Iranian interference in Iraq ("The American military has said that some elements in Shi'ite-dominated Iran have been giving Shi'ite militants in Iraq powerful Iranian-made roadside bombs, as well as training in their use ..."). Also mentioned was the knotty issue between the two countries of the five captive Iranian officials ("... Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Tehran's decision to attend the conference was not linked to any deal having to do with five Iranians who were detained in January by American troops in Irbil ...").

But something was missing - as it is regularly from American reporting on the US/Iranian face-off. The Bush administration is, at this very moment, sending a third aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, to the Persian Gulf. Although the three carriers and their strike forces will add up to a staggering display of US military power off the Iranian coast, American journalists aren't much impressed. Evidently, it's not considered off the diplomatic page or particularly provocative to mass your carrier battle groups this way, despite the implicit threat to pulverize Iranian nuclear and other facilities. Journalistically speaking, this is both blindingly strange and the norm on our one-way planet. If Iranians send the materials to make some roadside bombs into Iraq (as the Bush administration, at least, continually claims is the case), it's a huge deal, if not an act of war; but put the most powerful fleet in history off the Iranian coast? No sweat.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch and the author of The End of Victory Culture. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback. (Copyright 2007 Tomdispatch. Used by permission.)

Original article posted here.

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