I wrote last month that an important indication of where the balance of power within the administration stands vis-a-vis Iran policy was likely to emerge by the end of October when a decision was due on whether to release the five Irnaians held by U.S. forces in Iraq since they were seized in a raid on the de facto Iranian consulate in Irbili last January 10. I argued that if they were freed, it would strongly suggest that the realist wing of the administration, led by Pentagon chief Robert Gates, was indeed making progress in wresting control of the policy from resurgent hawks. According to press reports out of Baghdad today, it appears that the release of at least two of the five — along with seven other Iranians — is imminent.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of the Multi-National Force-Iraq’s communications division told reporters that Iran appears to have kept an earlier promise to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (back in September, according to the Los Angeles Times) to stop the alleged flow of EFP’s (explosively formed projectiles) from Iran to Shiite militias battling U.S. forces in Iraq. “It’s our best judgment that these particular EFPs …in recent large cache finds to not appear to have arrived here in Iraq after those pledges were made,” AP quotes Smith as saying, echoing similar statements by Iraq by Gates last Thursday. At the time, Gates also said that he had no direct evidence that top Iranian officials were aware of or approved such smuggling activities. Gates’ remarks dominated the Pentagon’s daily ‘Early Bird’ round-up of important news articles that is distributed throughout the national-security bureaucracy.
What makes this latest development so intriguing, of course, is that it comes on the heels of a sharp rise in the administration’s rhetoric against Iran, beginning with Bush’s reference two and a half weeks ago to “World War III” if Tehran acquires the knowledge necessary to build a nuclear weapon, followed by Dick Cheney’s extraordinary bellicose speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) October 21 in which warned of “serious consequences” if Iran did not freeze its nuclear program and accused it of “direct involvement in the killings of Americans.” This was followed, of course, by the imposition of sweeping and unprecedented sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which was accused of promoting terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and proliferating weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
That train of events provoked some push-back by worried Democrats (and in a letter to Bush from Republican maverick Sen. Chuck Hagel) in Congress, with 30 senators expressing concern in the form of a letter expressing “serious concerns with the provocative statements and actions stemming from your administration…” sent to Bush November 1 and from most of the Democratic presidential candidates (of whom, however, only Sens. Dodd and Biden signed the letter).
But the most interesting reaction came from within the Pentagon itself, including Gates’ remarks last Thursday and reports that CentCom commander Adm. William Fallon, who has made it abundantly clear that he strongly opposes a military attack on Iran, had responded favourably to Hagel’s letter to Bush. Today’s announcement by Adm. Smith appears to be consistent with this pattern, only it goes beyond simple words, particularly given the fact that all of the “Irbil 5” have been accused of membership in the IRGC’s Quds Force, although Smith reportedly said the nine individuals who will be released were of “no continuing value, nor do they pose a further theat to Iraqi security.”
BBC noted that the announcement coincided with the official opening of two Iranian consulates in northern Iraq today, including the de facto consulate in Irbil from which the five men were seized and another in Sulaimaniyah. Today’s developments also coincided with the announcement by Amb. Ryan Crocker that he will hold another round of talks with his Iranian counterpart — whom Gen. Petraeus recently accused of being a member of the Qods Force — in Baghdad after a three-month hiatus and immediately after last weekend’s regional meeting in Istanbul on stabilizing Iraq. Whether all this portends detente has yet to be seen, of course, but it does suggest that the battle within the administration over control of Iran policy continues.