US holds Iranians as bargaining chips
By Gareth Porter (with a postscript by Tom Engelhardt)
WASHINGTON - When the administration of US President George W Bush announced in
January that it was targeting Iranian officials in Iraq, it justified the
policy as necessary because of the Iranians' alleged involvement in attacks on
But recent developments have underlined the reality that those Iranian
officials are serving as bargaining chips in the Bush
administration's effort to get Iran to use its influence with Iraqi Shi'ites to
help stabilize the situation in Iraq.
The administration's decision to hold on to five Iranians seized by US troops
in the Kurdish city of Irbil in January, rather than release them to
reciprocate Iran's unconditional release early last month 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
The US refusal to reciprocate the Iranian prisoner release was apparently the
reason for Iran's refusal to allow Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to meet
privately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the international meeting
on Iraq in Egypt on Thursday and Friday.
The issue of whether to release the Iranians in light of Iran's release of the
British captives was discussed at a meeting of top Bush administration
officials on April 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 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
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 al-Sheikh and to be followed by a series of meetings.
In a speech on March 27, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signaled the
administration's desire for such dialogue to get Iran to play a more
cooperative role in stabilizing Iraq.
The origins of the administration's desire for such dialogue, however, appear
to lie in its determination last autumn to use what it understood to be Iran's
dominant influence over Shi'ite 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 armor-piercing explosives to Shi'ite militias in Iraq - allegations for
which administration officials had previously admitted they lacked actual
The linkage between those charges against Iran and the administration's
political aim of exploiting Iran's influence over Shi'ite leaders was revealed
in an unusually candid speech by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns to the
Council on Foreign Relations last October 11. Immediately after repeating
previous administration claims that the Iranians were behind the use of
sophisticated IED (improvised explosive device) technology by Shi'ite groups
against US troops, Burns said, "We expect that Iran, given its obvious interest
in Iraq, and given the degree of influence that it has over parts of the
Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite 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 January 12, was to target for capture Iranian
officials in Iraq who the administration would claim were linked to attacks on
US forces in Iraq. That meant, in effect, targeting Iranians suspected of being
members of the "Quds Force" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the
administration blamed for supporting the Shi'ite 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 destabilizing Iraq".
The administration announced its targeting strategy on January 10 just as it
was seizing the five Iranian officials in Irbil. The same day, the National
Broadcasting Co's Tim Russert reported that Bush and his top advisers had told
a small group of journalists that the administration would not sit down with
Iran until the US had gained "leverage".
The linkage of the five Iranian prisoners with a strategy to get Iran to use
its influence with the Shi'ites, the refusal of the Bush administration to
release the five, despite Rice's conclusion that they were no longer "useful",
and the administration's pursuit of "dialogue" with Iran and Iraq all suggest
that 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 US 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 on Wednesday, "For the moment the conditions do not exist for
such a dialogue."
Iran has always insisted that the US must signal a change in its policy toward
Tehran before any direct diplomatic dialogue could begin. That would mean at
least reciprocating Iranian gestures of goodwill, if not acknowledging that the
US is prepared to address legitimate Iranian concerns about US policies.
Rice's initial suggestion that the Iranians should be released seems to reflect
an awareness on the part of realists within the administration that the US
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 Cheney still has Bush's ear on Iran policy.
(Inter Press Service)
By Tom Engelhardt
At a news conference on Monday involving President Bush and European leaders,
this exchange took place:
Q: Your secretary of state
is going to a conference [on] Iraq where the foreign minister from Iran is
going to be present. Do you expect her to have conversations with the foreign
minister of Iran? What will she talk about? And if she does have a
conversation, is there going to be a change of US foreign policy?
Bush: Should the foreign minister of Iran bump into Condi Rice, Condi
won't be rude. She's not a rude person. I'm sure she'll be polite.
But she'll also be firm in reminding this representative of the Iranian
government that there's a better way forward for the Iranian people than
isolation ... If, in fact, there is a conversation, it will be one that says if
the Iranian government wants to have a serious conversation with the United
States and others, they ought to give up their enrichment program in a
verifiable fashion. And we will sit down at the table with them, along with our
European partners, and Russia, as well. That's what she'll tell them.
So that, as far as we know, is the full diplomatic component of the Bush
administration's Iran policy. Every nuance of that policy is regularly covered
in the press. Take, for instance, a recent New York Times piece by Kirk Semple
and Christine Hauser ("Iran to attend regional conference"). It focused on
Secretary of State Rice's comments on her willingness to talk with the Iranians
should she happen to "bump into" them. ("I would not rule it out.") Included in
the piece was a brief version of the US laundry list of complaints about
Iranian interference in Iraq ("The American military has said that some
elements in Shi'ite-dominated Iran have been giving Shi'ite militants in Iraq
powerful Iranian-made roadside bombs, as well as training in their use ...").
Also mentioned was the knotty issue between the two countries of the five
captive Iranian officials ("... Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Tehran's decision to
attend the conference was not linked to any deal having to do with five
Iranians who were detained in January by American troops in Irbil ...").
But something was missing - as it is regularly from American reporting on the
US/Iranian face-off. The Bush administration is, at this very moment, sending a
third aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, to the Persian Gulf. Although the three
carriers and their strike forces will add up to a staggering display of US
military power off the Iranian coast, American journalists aren't much
impressed. Evidently, it's not considered off the diplomatic page or
particularly provocative to mass your carrier battle groups this way, despite
the implicit threat to pulverize Iranian nuclear and other facilities.
Journalistically speaking, this is both blindingly strange and the norm on our
one-way planet. If Iranians send the materials to make some roadside bombs into
Iraq (as the Bush administration, at least, continually claims is the case),
it's a huge deal, if not an act of war; but put the most powerful fleet in
history off the Iranian coast? No sweat.
Gareth Porter is a 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.
Tom Engelhardt is editor of
Tomdispatch and the author of The End of Victory
Culture. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in
paperback. (Copyright 2007 Tomdispatch. Used by permission.)