The latest looney-tune story from the left was spun by Patrick Cockburn, an intrepid reporter for London's Independent newspaper. According to this Iranian-sponsored fairy tale, it's all Bush's fault.
That's right. The fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy seized 15 British sailors and marines and took them hostage in Iraqi waters never would have happened if George W. Bush hadn't ordered U.S. troops in Iraq to capture Gen. Minojahar Firouzandeh, a top Rev. Guards intelligence officer on Jan. 10, 2007.
It appears that Gen. Firouzandeh was paying a courtesy call to an Iranian "consulate" in Irbil, Iraq, when U.S. and Iraqi troops decided to raid the place. Luckily for Firouzandeh, he and another high-level visitor -- said to be Mohammed Jaafari, the deputy chairman of the Supreme Council on National Security -- had been tipped off by Iraqi Kurdish friends and high-tailed it out of dodge, just in time.
Instead of Firouzandeh and Jaafari, coalition troops arrested six other Iranians, including three top officers of the Quds Force, the overseas terrorist arm of the Iranian Rev. Guards. One Iranian, who was operating under diplomatic cover, was subsequently released. The other five were caught in the act of trying to eat their passports or otherwise destroy their identity papers and are still in U.S. custody.
Because of America's audacity in arresting Iranian intelligence officers using a visa office in northern Iraq as a staging area to funnel support to Iraqi insurgents, Iran was compelled to take hostage a team of British sailors who were operating in Iraqi waters at the opposite end of the country. Got that?
According to this version of events, if the United States and Britain would just allow Iran to run roughshod over Iraq, supply terrorists with fresh weapons and suitcases of cash, everything would be just fine.
Cockburn was right about one thing, however. He called the U.S. arrests "a significant escalation in the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran."
As I revealed on this page not long after the Jan. 10 raid, Iran's leaders panicked when they heard the news. For only the second time in the 28 years the Iranian mullahs had been jerking the American chain, the Americans finally reacted with something akin to force. (The other time was during a one day battle in the Persian Gulf on April 18, 1988, during which the U.S. navy sunk one-third of the Iranian navy.)
Iran's leaders respect and fear U.S. military force. Clearly, they neither respect nor fear the Royal Navy. That's why they chose to take British sailors hostage, not attack a U.S. boarding party or a U.S. ship, although some in the Iranian government were indeed advocating such action.
The decision to release the fifteen British hostages, announced by Ahmadinejad on Wednesday, came after an intense and often bitter internal debate, sources in Tehran told me.
If the capture of the British naval inspection team was clearly a coordinated effort by the Iranian government aimed at demonstrating Iran's ability to confront the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq and to divert international attention from the nuclear showdown, the decision to release the hostages showed the limits of Iran's power and the fears of some leaders that too much provocation could backfire.
Within four days of their capture on March 23, the fifteen Britons were split up into smaller groups and held in different areas, Iranian sources told me. This was a lesson learned from the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, when all 55 U.S. hostages were initially kept in one place, prompting the failed U.S. effort to rescue them.
Early during the current hostage crisis, the British team was split up into five groups of three, to prevent any rescue attempt, with each group kept at a different military base. The Iranians would then bring several groups together and film them, to give the impression they were being held together.
The order to capture the British sailors and marines was given by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, my sources tell me.
Khamenei's top advisors argued that by striking out against a U.S. ally in Iraq, they would be sending a message to other European nations to step back from supporting the U.S. strategy of increasing pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. They saw the move as a clear test of Western resolve.
And for awhile, this Iranian strategy appeared to be working.
Britain's European partners quickly forgot their treaty obligations and determined that the British sailors and marines were not really Europeans, thus obviating the need for a collective response from all members of the European Union.
Although they might carry European Union passports when traveling to Italy or Greece, when British subjects got in trouble in Iran they were Britons first and last.
"C'est vraiment une affaire qui ne passe pas outre-Manche," the French center-left daily Le Monde commented on Tuesday. Translated into plain English, the French observed (accurately) that nobody on the correct side of the English Channel could give a rat's behind about the fate of the British hostages. They had too much (commercially) at stake.
Tony Blair's efforts to get his European partners to consider scaling back export credits to Iran fell on deaf ears. Let's hope his successors remember that heart-warming European response when the French and the Germans roll-out their next version of a collectivist constitution for the EU's 25-member states.
British companies, however, rallied to the call and backed off their planned participation in a oil trade show planned in Tehran from April 18-22.
Just before the hostage crisis began, the Iranians boasted that 1,300 international companies had expressed interest in attending the show. On March 30, a British trade representative told me that only 13 UK companies had signed up for the trip. Since then, Iran appears to have pushed the show back by at least a week.
As Britain refused to apologize for the behavior of its boarding party, continuing to insist that they were operating in Iraqi waters -- not inside Iran's territorial waters, as Tehran alleged -- some of Khamenei's advisors began to have second thoughts.
Adding to those doubts were whispered reports that the USS Nimitz was steaming toward the Persian Gulf-- making it the third Carrier Strike Group in the area.
The Nimitz is expected to join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS John C. Stennis, both currently in the Persian Gulf, in the coming weeks. It left its home port of San Diego on April 2, but the Iranians apparently had advance warning of the Nimitz's plans (hello?)
On Friday, March 30, Khamenei's top advisors met in an emergency session of the Supreme Council on National Security, chaired by Ali Larijani.
Larijani is the regime's top nuclear negotiator, and is a confidant of the Supreme Leader, while maintaining close ties to President Ahmadinejad.
At that meeting, Revolutionary Guards commander Maj. Gen. Rahim Safavi reported that the deployment of the Nimitz suggested that a U.S. military invasion of Iran was being prepared for early May. He urged the Council to order the release of the British hostages as a gesture to defuse the tension in the region.
The next day, however, the head of the Political and Cultural bureau of the Revolutionary Guards, Dr. Yadollah Javani, called Safavi a "traitor" for proposing the release of the hostages.
While this internal dispute raged, Revolutionary Guards intelligence officers in charge of guarding the hostages continued intense debriefings, aimed at eliciting "confessions" from the British captives that were aired on Iranian television.
The first inkling that the faction urging release of the hostages was winning appeared on Tuesday evening, when the influential Baztab website, run by former Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Mohsen Rezai, reported that the British captives would soon be released.
"It can now be said that the politicians who are for continuing relations with London have got the upper hand," Baztab reported.
So for now, Tehran's leaders have backed down. Why?
For one, they scored some domestic political points. Britain is not terribly popular in Iran, and is always suspected of some conspiratorial plot aimed at destroying Iran's territorial integrity or national sovereignty. So any blow against Britain is a sure win for Iranian jingoists.
Second, I am told that the U.S. agreed to an Iranian demand to allow an international Red Crescent team interview the five Iranian officials in U.S. custody after the Jan. 10 raid in Irbil. This is a serious but understandable U.S. concession.
Among the Red Crescent team is an Iranian national, and the chances that he reports directly to the Iranian government are very high. "He will tell the captives to shut up, hang tight, and soon they'll be free," my Iranian sources tell me.
But my bets are still on the Nimitz -- and on the proximity of the anniversary of Operation Praying Mantis, when the Iranians tasted the steel and cordite of a determined U.S. navy.
Unless Iran already has nuclear warheads, a direct military confrontation with the United States would most likely provoke a popular uprising against the regime. And retaining power is the one thing that Ayatollah Khamenei and his clerical cohorts actually care about.
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).