It sounds like something out of a South Park movie, but the U.K. Independent says the United States is somehow to blame for the current hostage standoff between Britain and Iran. According to the Independent's Patrick Cockburn, Tehran's plans to seize western hostages was set in motion almost three months ago, after U.S. forces tried to nab a pair of senior Iranian officials visiting Iraqi Kurdistan. Cockburn claims that we failed to tell the Brits about the "real" motive behind the "botched" raid, setting the stage for the abduction of British sailors and Royal Marines along the Shatt al-Arab Waterway in southern Iraq.
There are a number of problems with Mr. Cockburn's version of events. First, as various analysts have observed, Iran has a long history of hostage taking, dating back to the seizure of our embassy in 1979. However, Cockburn ignores that fact, implying that this is a new tactic for the Iran, put in motion by our attempt to nab those senior officials. Five Iranian operatives were arrested in mid-January, after a raid on a so-called "diplomatic facility" in Irbil. According to the U.S. military, all of the officials arrested in Kurdistan had ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force, the military organization that provides direct support to terrorists in Iraq. But readers won't find any of those allegations in Cockburn's report; without question, he accepts Tehran's explanation that IRGC operatives were really just consular officials, helping arrange tourist visas for Kurds who wanted to visit Iran. Never mind that documents found in the facility provided direct links between the Qods force and recent arms transfers to Iraqi terrorists.
Additionally, Cockburn fails to report that Iran has apparently tried to abduct allied military personnel in the past. A recent report in Time detailed a firefight along the Iran-Iraq border last September, an episode that had all the makings of a kidnapping operation. Confronting Iranian soldiers retreating from Iraqi territory, U.S. troops were told not to leave the area by an Iranian officer. Sensing an abduction was in the offing, the Americans pulled back, and the Iranians opened fire. American troops shot back--reportedly killing an Iranian soldier--and escaped. That episode likely reminded Tehran that American forces in Iraq operate under different rules of engagement (ROE), and sent the Iranians in search of easier targets.
Cockburn's account also ignores another important fact. If the U.S. really wanted the Iranian generals who visited Irbil in January, I doubt that a raid would have been necessary. Given our close ties with Kurdish leaders and their security forces, detention of the Iranians could have been arranged with a few phone calls to the "right" people. While some Kurdish leaders talk about the need for good relations with Tehran, they are keenly aware that Iran has brutally oppressed its own ethnic Kurds, and would never support an independent Kurdistan in Iraq--or anywhere else, for that matter. Faced with the choice of antagonizing the U.S. or upsetting Iran, Kurdish authorities in Iraq would gladly choose the latter, and allowed the Americans to arrest those Iranian generals.
But, there is no indication that the U.S. ever made such a request, likely because it would have created an international incident. Catching those senior officers at the unaccredited "diplomatic" compound would have been a nice bonus, but it was not imperative to the success or failure of the raid. And, contrary to Cockburn's assertion, the operation was far from a failure. The referenced "raid" was aimed at operational-level Iranian agents, providing direct support to terrorists in Iraq.
In fact, given the facility's ties to the IRGC and insurgents, it would have been surprising to find the two generals at that location. Mr. Cockburn claims that the lack of insurgents at the compound weakens U.S. claims that it was used to support terrorists. But that argument is equally specious; over the past four years, coalition forces in Iraq have discovered numeous weapons caches and safe houses that were clearly used by insurgents, despite the fact that
"no one was home" when the raids were executed. While Kurdish security may have limited Iranian activities in Irbil, the use of diplomatic cover and the lack of a U.S. military presence (we have less than 100 troops in all of Kurdistan) made the city an excellent venue for funneling support to terrorists elsewhere in Iraq.
Moreover, the Independent's assertion that Britain was somehow "in the dark" about the raid is something of a red herring to boot. The arrest of those "junior" Iranian officials at the Irbil facility was extensively reported in the press. And, even if we were targeting bigger fish, the Brits certainly understood that the detention of Iranian agents could prompt a counter-move by Tehran. And, given the "gap" between the Irbil raid and events along the Shatt al-Arab, the Brits had plenty of time to adjust their rules of engagement, and reassess the risks for vulnerable personnel.
Instead, U.K. boarding teams along the Shatt al-Arab continued to operate with limited air support and restrictive ROE, making them prime targets for an Iranian kidnapping operation. Describing the abduction of those sailors and Royal Marines as a product of the Irbil raid is simply irresponsible, and smacks of a feeble ploy by the Blair government (and MoD elements) to shift the blame on someone else.