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U.S./IRAQ: Bush Holds Iranian Officials as Bargaining Chips

Analysis by Gareth Porter*

WASHINGTON, May 3 2007 (IPS) - When the George W. Bush administration announced in January that it was targeting Iranian officials in Iraq, it justified the policy as necessary to protect U.S. troops because of their alleged involvement in attacks on U.S. forces.

But recent developments have underlined the reality that those Iranian officials are serving as bargaining chips in the administration&#39s effort to get Iran to use its influence with Iraqi Shiites to help stabilise the situation in Iraq.

The administration&#39s decision to hold on to five Iranians seized by U.S. troops in the Kurdish city of Irbil last January, rather than release them to reciprocate Iran&#39s unconditional release in early April of 15 British sailors and marines captured in the Persian Gulf in March, raises the question of what calculations administration officials have been making in regard to their Iranian prisoners.

The U.S. refusal to reciprocate the Iranian prisoner release was apparently the reason for Iran&#39s refusal to allow its Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to meet privately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the international meeting on Iraq in Egypt Thursday and Friday.

The issue of whether to release the Iranians in light of Iran&#39s release of the British captives was discussed at a meeting of top administration officials on Apr. 10, according to a Washington Post report by Robin Wright.

Rice argued that the administration should release the five Iranian officials, because they were no longer useful. But Wright reported that an unnamed official representing Vice President Dick Cheney had insisted on holding them, arguing that it would convey to Iran that even more Iranian officials in Iraq might be seized, and that Rice had "gone along with the consensus" on the issue.

The report of that discussion suggests that top administration officials are viewing their Iranian prisoners in the context of the broader diplomatic aims of the administration in regard to Iran. For the past few weeks, the Bush administration has been angling for what it calls a "dialogue" with Iran. That dialogue was supposed to have been kicked off with the Rice-Mottaki meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh and to be followed by a series of meetings later on.

In a speech on Mar. 27, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates had previously signaled the administration&#39s desire for such a dialogue in order to get Iran to play a more cooperative role in stabilising Iraq.

The origins of the administration&#39s desire for such a dialogue, however, appear to lie in its determination last fall to use what it understood to be Iran&#39s dominant influence over Shiite political-military leaders in Iraq to its advantage. In early October, the White House had decided simultaneously on two initiatives related to that aim.

The first was to launch a high-profile campaign of allegations that Iran was sending armour-piercing explosives to Shiite militias in Iraq – allegations for which administration officials had previously admitted they lacked actual evidence.

The linkage between those charges against Iran and the administration&#39s political aim of exploiting Iran&#39s influence over Shiite leaders was revealed in an unusually candid speech by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns to the Council on Foreign Relations last Oct. 11. Immediately after repeating previous administration claims that the Iranians were behind the use of sophisticated IED [improvised explosive device] technology by Shi&#39a groups against U.S. troops, Burns said, "[W]e expect that Iran, given its obvious interest in Iraq, and given the degree of influence that it has over parts of the Shi&#39a community in Iraq, is going to now decide to act differently."

Burns thus strongly hinted that the Bush strategy was based on the assumption that Iran could coerce its Iraqi allies to do something they did not want to do and would use its political capital with Iraqi Shiite leaders because of pressure from the United States.

The second decision made in early October, as revealed by Rice in an interview with the New York Times on Jan. 12, was to target for capture Iranian officials in Iraq whom the administration would claim were linked to attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. That meant, in effect, targeting Iranians suspected of being a member of the "Quds Force" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the administration blamed for supporting the Shiite militias in Iraq.

In subsequent public appearances, Rice refused to rule out a cross-border military operation to "disrupt activities that are endangering and killing our troops and that are destabilising Iraq."

The administration announced its targeting strategy on Jan. 10 just as it was seizing the five Iranian officials in Irbil. The same day, NBC&#39s Tim Russert reported that Bush and his top advisers had told a small group of journalists the administration would not sit down with Iran until the United States had gained "leverage".

The linkage of the five Iranian prisoners with a strategy to get Iran to use its influence with the Shiites, the refusal of the administration to release the five, despite Rice&#39s conclusion that they were no longer "useful", and the administration&#39s pursuit of a "dialogue" with Iran and Iraq all suggest that Bush administration hardliners have regarded the Iranian prisoners from the beginning as hostages to be given up in return for Iranian cooperation on Iraq.

The Iranian rebuff to the U.S. proposal for a Rice-Mottaki meeting makes it clear, however, that Iran will not discuss a deal involving its cooperation on Iraq for the return of its officials. In ruling out the meeting with Rice, Mottaki declared Wednesday, "For the moment the conditions do not exist for such a dialogue."

Iran has always insisted that the United States must signal a change in its policy toward Iran before any direct diplomatic dialogue could begin. That would mean at least reciprocating Iranian gestures of goodwill, if not acknowledging that the United States is prepared to address legitimate Iranian concerns about U.S. policies.

Rice&#39s initial suggestion that the Iranians should be released seems to reflect an awareness on the part of realists within the administration that the United States cannot have a diplomatic dialogue with Iran while holding Iranian hostages as bargaining chips – and threatening to take even more. But her cave-in to the hardline position suggests that Dick Cheney still has Bush&#39s ear on Iran policy.

*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.

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