Will the Irbil 5 Be Freed?

An important indication of where the balance of power within the administration stands vis-a-vis Iran policy is likely to emerge in the next week or two when a decision is due on whether to release the five Iranians who have been held by U.S. forces in Iraq since they were seized in a raid on the de facto Iranian consulate in Irbil last January 10. If they are freed, it would suggest strongly that the realist wing of the administration is in the driver’s seat; if, as now seems likely, you can draw your own conclusions.
The administration has accused the five of being members of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, although the reported actual target of the raid, Iranian deputy national security adviser, former Revolutionary Guard Gen. Mohammad Jafari, has insisted that they were diplomats who had been representing Iranian interests in Kurdistan’s capital since the U.S. implemented its “no-fly zone” over Kurdistan after the first Gulf War in 1991. (Of course, the two versions are not necessarily mutually exclusive.) The Iranians have demanded that the five be freed, as have the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments. There was considerable speculation over the course of the summer that the arrests of the four Iranian-Americans in Iran last spring were designed in part to create the basis for an exchange. The four Americans were released in advance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York in late September, although two have not been given permission to leave Iran. Whether those releases (and Tehran’s long-sought permission for the family of a former FBI agent who was reported missing in Iran since March to travel there) were aimed at improving the atmosphere for Ahmadinejad’s visit and/or bolstering those in Washington who have argued that the five Iranians should be released remains unclear. In June, however, Iran’s foreign minister warned that, “We will make the U.S. regret its repulsive, illegal action against Iran’s consulate and its officials,” a warning that coincided with what U.S. officers in Iraq have since asserted has been an increase in Tehran’s support for renegade Shia militias.

Aside from the importance which Tehran evidently attaches to the release of the five, their fate should offer some indication of how the battle between the hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and the realists, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is tilting. Rice, according to an April 14 Washington Post account by Robin Wright, argued in favour of releasing the Five last April but eventually deferred to Cheney’s insistence that their release would be interpreted by Iran as weakness. It is unclear whether Gates or his top aides expressed a strong view during the administration’s internal debate at the time or whether he is pressing for their release now as a way of reducing bilateral tensions, which he has consistently been trying to do virtually since taking office late last year.

Initial indications are not favorable. According to a Washington Post report by Robin Wright last Friday, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the day-to-day operational commander in Iraq, said he will recommend that the five Iranians not be released when their case is reviewed. “Militarily, we should hold on to them,” he said at a meeting with Post reporters and editors. That position stood in stark contrast to statements by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani during a similar meeting at the Post earlier in the week at which he also insisted that the Iraqi government was united in demanding that they be released. “The five were not part of the Quds Force,” he said, according to Wright. Interestingly, Wright had reported last April, in arguing for releasing the five, Rice had asserted their continued detention and interrogation were no longer of any value, presumably to the U.S. military or intelligence.

Indeed, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh reported in July that Iraqi officials who, like the administration, believe that the Quds Force is indeed supporting Shia militias that are attacking U.S. targets in Iraq, were nonetheless certain that the Irbil 5 were legitimately in Iraq and were the unfortunate victims of a botched raid that “Americans are now too embarrassed to admit.”

“We don’t want to embarrass the Americans. But it was a botched attempt. And they went after these innocent guys,” Hirsh quoted one “high-level Iraqi official” as saying. “As simple as that. And now they’re stuck. And we’ve kept quiet.” (Quoting U.S. officials in Baghdad, Hirsh also noted that one of the five had explosive residue on his hands.)

On top of Odierno’s statements, his boss, Gen. David Petraeus, seemed to raise the stakes even higher yesterday when he asserted that Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, also belonged to the Quds Force. He also told CNN, “We have absolute assurance” that a number of Iranians currently being held by the U.S. were Quds Force members, although he did not specify whether he was speaking of the Irbil 5. While Petraeus did not accuse of Kazemi-Qomi of active involvement in the smuggling and related operations which the Quds Force is accused of running — “Now he has diplomatic immunity and …and he is acting as a diplomat” — his new charges, like Odierno’s remarks, will obviously make it considerably less likely that the Five will be freed when their review takes place.

If we assume that Rice was correct that the Five were of no further value to U.S. forces and Talabani and other Iraqi officials were correct when they insist the Five were in Iraq with the permission of the local Kurdistan government, if not the national government, at the very least, then prolonging their detention would seem designed to heighten — rather than reduce — tensions with Tehran, and that, in turn, tends to confirm the persistent influence of the administration hawks. After all, there is a definite political downside to not releasing them: it once more demonstrates to all and sundry that the current Iraqi government does not exercise real sovereignty over its territory at a time when Iraqi leaders are clearly furious with Washington’s handling of last month’s Blackwater incident. Conversely, releasing the five would send an important signal to Tehran and also show that Washington was somewhat more respectful of Iraqi sovereignty than recent events have suggested.

I don’t know whether the State Department intends, as it did before, to argue for the Five’s release, although the notion that they should continue to be held for “military” reasons, as Odierno asserted, seems frankly ludicrous. What interests me more is how Gates, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mullen, and Petraeus’ boss, Centcom Commander Adm. William Fallon, come down. It seems to me those three have been the most anxious about reducing tensions with Iran, particularly about avoiding the accidental outbreak of hostilities that could quickly blossom into a broader conflict, even while their field commanders in Iraq, Petraeus and Odierno, have taken a much more hawkish line more consistent with that of Cheney’s office. Of course, the Pentagon realists may decide that the Five’s fate is not important enough to spend the political capital they have been trying to store up with the Decider for future fights with the hawks. But I would think that, given the attention the Iranians have paid to the Irbil 5, the results of this month’s review could still be a very important test of who’s got the upper hand. I’m quite sure that the realists and hawks in Tehran will be watching closely.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.


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