The recent seizure of 15 British sailors by Iran has opened a window on a rapidly escalating Cold War-like contest -- involving Tehran, the United States and Britain and centering on cloak-and-dagger operations in Iraq.
Iran released the British sailors and marines April 5 after a nearly two-week standoff. Far from being an isolated incident, or an act of provocation engineered by radical elements within the Iranian government, the capture of the British military personnel, and Tehran's subsequent tough bargaining, were actions that had the unqualified support of all the major Iranian political factions, according to political observers in Tehran with detailed knowledge of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
The chief motivation for the capture of the British sailors and marines was a desire to dispel any impression in Washington and London that the Iranian leadership in Tehran is either weak or divided. Iranian leaders also wanted to send a signal that they are undaunted by a quasi-covert US offensive to undermine Iran's strategic position in Iraq.
According to a report first published by the British newspaper The Independent, the Bush administration since the start of 2007 has been carrying out a military "search-and-destroy" operation, designed to eliminate Iranian assets in Iraq. The operation has a dual aim: to improve the tactical situation for US troops in Iraq, given that Iranian agents are perceived to be providing critical assistance to Shi'ia militia groups; and to enhance Washington's bargaining leverage in potential bilateral talks with Iran. In early April, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the possibility of direct talks with her Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki. However, the official IRNA news agency quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini as saying on April 8 that "talks with the United States are not on Iran's agenda."
The US search-and-destroy operations are intertwined with the Bush administration's so-called surge policy elaborated at the outset of 2007. The origins of the just-concluded British POW drama can be traced back to January, when US troops raided a semi-official Iranian mission in the Iraqi city of Arbil, a northern Iraqi city that serves as the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. Five Iranians working at the liaison office there were seized in the raid, along with computers and loads of documents.
At the time of the US raid, two high-ranking Iranian security officials -- Mohammed Jafari, a senior Iranian internal security official, and Gen. Minojahar Frouzanda, the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence chief -- were visiting the area at the invitation of the Kurdish authorities. According to some accounts, the duo may have been the intended targets of the raid. "They were after Jafari," Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, told the Independent. "The Americans thought he [Jafari] was there." Hussein added that Kurdish authorities considered the arrested men as legitimate diplomats.
In addition to the five Iranians taken into custody during the Arbil raid, Iran suspects that the United States of being involved in the detention of other Iranian diplomats, including Jalal Sharafi, who was seized by masked men wearing Iraqi military uniforms in early February. "Tehran looked at these moves as a major provocation. It was only a matter of time before Iran would respond in kind," said a Tehran-based Iranian political scientist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
To a great extent, the US policy aimed at neutralizing Iran's strategic influence in Iraq, has backfired, some observers in Tehran contend. Instead of weakening Iran, the US policy prompted competing political factions in Tehran to cooperate, at least when it comes to the country's policy toward Iraq. "Iran considers itself as major player in Iraq and would like to be considered as such," said the Iranian political scientist. "In trying to expel it by force from Iraq, the United States managed to unify all the various factions."
Underscoring Iran's broad political consensus on Iraq is the fact that the country's former ambassador to Britain, Mohammad Hussain Adeli, a moderate with close ties to former president Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was among the vocal advocates of a hard line against the British government during the POW drama. Adeli said in an early April interview with the daily Kargozaran that activities aimed at Iran in the last few months were part of a plan to "escalate the tensions against Iran vis-à-vis the Iraqi situation." Adeli went on to insist that Iran's decision to seize the British military personnel was a "fully justified" response to a "British provocation."
The British POW drama was just the highest profile incident in a growing list of shadowy occurrences in 2007 concerning Iran. Sharafi, who was taken captive under mysterious circumstances in February, was released from custody on April 3, a move that some observers have linked to the release two days later of the British military personnel.
Other incidents have had no clear resolution. For example, in February a prominent Revolutionary Guards general, Ali Reza Asgari, who had served a deputy defense minister for eight years until 2005, disappeared while purportedly on a business trip in Istanbul, Turkey. According to subsequent media reports, Asgari was possibly a mole for Western intelligence agencies who fled Iran when it appeared that his cover was about to be blown.
In late January, Iranian media announced the death of Ardeshir Hassanpour, one of the country's most talented nuclear scientists. The scientist's untimely demise was shrouded in mystery. Officially, all Iranian officials were willing to say is that Hassanpour had been "accidentally poisoned." Some published reports have hinted that the scientist may have been the target of an Israeli intelligence operation.
According to some media accounts, Iran retaliated for Hassanpour’s death by reportedly assassinating David Dahan, who headed Israel’s Defense Ministry Mission to Europe. Dahan died in late January in France in what was officially listed as a suicide. But Iranian media have suggested otherwise. A January 29 commentary in Sobh-e Sadegh, the official organ of the Political Bureau of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, noted that when a “high-ranking (Israeli) Mossad agent suddenly expires in Paris … it should all be clear signal to those who harbor false hopes against us."
Finally, the US State Department on April 2 revealed that a retired FBI agent, Robert A. Levinson, who had reportedly gone to Iran on private business, had been missing since March 8. Hosseini, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, announced April 8 that Iranian officials were trying to determine Levinson's whereabouts. Levinson, who retired from the FBI in 1998, reportedly disappeared on Kish Island, an Iranian free economic zone that can be visited by foreigners without a visa. He was supposedly on the island to work on a film project. A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, downplayed any connection between the disappearance and ongoing US-Iranian tension. During an April 5 press briefing, McCormack called media reports that Levinson had been seized by Iranian security agents as "purely speculative."
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.