Yesterday, we speculated about what sort of deal might have ssecured the release of those 15 British military personnel being held by Iran. Tehran's sudden decision to free the captured sailors and Royal Marines suggested that some sort of agreement had been reached. At that point, we were awaiting confirmation that a deal had been struck, and the details of that agreement.
In today's New York Sun, reporter Eli Lake does an admirable job of filling in the details. Administration sources tell him that Tehran's decision to release the captured British personnel came shortly after the U.S. helped free an Iranian diplomat, being held in Baghdad. Jalal Sharafi, second secretary of Iran's embassy in Iraq, was detained by Iraqi security forces in mid-January, after coalition forces began cracking down on Iranain officials suspected of assisting terrorists.
According to Mr. Lake's sources, the decision to release Sharafi was made by the White House Tuesday night, over the objections of some military commanders in Baghdad. U.S. intelligence officers in Iraq believe that the Iranian diplomat is actually a member of the Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, which provides direct support for terrorist groups targeting American troops. Release of Iranians held by the U.S. and Iraqi forces was a key demand by Iran in talks aimed at ending the British hostage crisis. And, at least one unnamed U.S. official believes the Iranians won this round of the negotiation game:
"They think they won this round. They were able to take the hostages and suffer no consequences," an American official said.
As Mr. Lake observes, the U.S. still has a number of Iranian nationals in custody, including the so-called "Irbil 5," arrested in the Kurdish-controlled Iraqi city in January. But, given the outcome of the British hostage drama, the continued detention of those Iranians should provide little comfort for the west. Having successfully extracted Sharafi from coalition hands--and having paid no real price for that effort--Iran will almost certainly be back, looking for a way to gain freedom for its other, captured operatives.