The signals from the latest "crisis" with Iran over its capture of British sailors in the Persian Gulf are both good and bad. The good news is that the Brits, unlike our wannabee cowboy President, have clearly opted for diplomacy rather than military threats. The Blair government, despite its initial tough talk, has been exploring ways to satisfy the Iranians without overtly admitting a territorial violation. In response to such "girl-talk," of course, the Bush administration fumes and sputters that appeasement is dangerous. What they mean, of course, is that America’s most steadfast ally in its Persian Gulf adventure has now begun to abandon ship, leaving the U.S. under Bush more isolated by the hour.
The bad news lies in the underlying and perilous dynamics that are revealed by Iran’s capture. These dynamics have been revealed in detail by Seymour Hersh’s several New Yorker articles about the American plans being put into place to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, probably via air strikes. But they have also been revealed in a stunning article by Patrick Cockbun, "The Botched Raid that Led to the Hostage Crisis," that first appeared in the British newspaper, the Independent, on April 3 (reprinted on commondreams.org.) Cockburn maintains that the Iranian seizure of the British sailors was really retaliation for the earlier American raid in Iraq resulting in the seizure of five Iranian officials. The United States, at the time of that raid on January 11, claimed that the five were "intelligence agents" aiding or instigating the insurgency in Iraq. This went along with the Bush administration’s latest attempt to blame someone, anyone for its Iraq debacle. And since Bush could no longer blame Saddam Hussein, or al Quaeda, it had to be the evil Iranians who were responsible for spoiling his "mission of freedom." Hence the raid in the northern Kurdish town of Irbil. Wholly illegal and dangerously provocative, netting only five minor officials, and failing to provide evidence of Iranian guilt, the raid seemed stupid.
What Cockburn reveals, however, is that the raid was actually meant to capture two high-ranking Iranians on an official visit to the Kurdish-born Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, among others. The two were Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Fortunately, the two avoided capture. But such a raid, coming at the very time President Bush was attacking the Iranians daily as the greatest threat America faced, now seems intended at the least to provoke a crisis, and at the worst, the all-out war that Seymour Hersh had been predicting. The administration, in short, needed a casus belli, and appears to have gambled that with the capture of two high Iranian officials, Iran would be provoked into some foolish over-response, and the attack on its nuclear facilities could be launched.
Now it becomes plain why the Iranian government may have felt obliged to capture the 15 British sailors. Some response to America’s outrageous raid on Iranian diplomats was required. The Brits provided an easier and less dangerous target than a comparable American target might. And in the light of recent developments (one Iranian released so far, with reports that an Iranian envoy will be allowed to see the five captured Iranians in U.S. custody), it appears that a prisoner exchange might have been anticipated by the Iranians all along as a diplomatic way out.
As of this writing, hopes are high that the British sailors will be released: Iran on Wednesday announced that they would be released as an Easter gift. But the underlying tensions, initiated by the Bush administration’s maneuvers and provocations (the U.S. has never sent aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, mainly because sea space is so limited that aircraft carriers can barely maneuver there, making the chances for a disastrous error extremely high), continue.
The real question now is whether the United States and the world will be lucky enough to survive the next two years, or whether our weakened, trigger-happy, boy-President will yet manage to plunge us all into his teen-dream ‘nucular’ armaggedon.