As we predicted more than a week ago, resolution of the British hostage crisis may well hinge on the fate of those five Iranian "officials," arrested by the U.S. military in Iraq back in January. The five were nabbed during a raid on a non-accredited Iranian diplomatic facility in Irbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region. Tehran insists that the officials were engaged in consular work, but military officials claim that the Iranians are linked to a military faction that provides support for terrorists in Iraq.
Today, an Iranian diplomat emphasized that release of the five would be helpful in securing freedom for 15 British military personnel, who were taken captive on 23 March. The Brits were abducted while conducting anti-smuggling operations in the Shatt al-Arab Waterway, along the Iran-Iraq border.
"We are intensively seeking the release of the five Iranians," the Iraqi foreign ministry official said. "This will be a factor that will help in the release of the British sailors and marines."
Tehran's efforts to link the British hostages to its own detainees underscores the importance of that raid in Irbil, and suggests that the captured "officials" were more than mere diplomats. Since their arrrest, coalition forces have scored a number of victories against Iranian-supported terror networks, and Tehran wants to get these "consular officials" back before they can divulge more information.
And sadly, some sort of swap could be in the works. Another Iranian diplomat, captured in Baghdad two months ago, has apparently been released. At the time of his abduction, the diplomat's captors were described as "unifomed gunmen," although their identity was never officially disclosed. A senior Iraqi government official told the Associated Press that his country's intelligence service was holding the diplomat, who was set free this morning.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated that the next 48 hours will be crucial in securing the release of his military personnel. In diplomacy-speak, that probably means that his government is leaning hard on the U.S. to release some--perhaps all--of the "Irbil 5," to gain freedom for the captured sailors and Royal Marines.
Repeating Margaret Thatcher's famous advice to Bush #41, now is not the time to "go wobbly." While no one wants to see the Brits languish in Iranian custody, both Washington and London should think long (and hard) about the precedent established by this type of swap. True, both countries have swapped detainees with adversaries in the past, but a quick capitulation to Tehran's demands will only embolden Tehran, and make it more difficult to crack down on those Iranian "officials" who enable the killing of American troops and innocent civilians in Iraq.