Home > Conflict & Security, Editorial, Middle East, Politics > Why Would Iran Want to Take 15 British Sailors Prisoner?

Why Would Iran Want to Take 15 British Sailors Prisoner?

Why did Iran take 15 British sailors prisoner?

Patrick Cockburn, of the Independent, says in an exclusive report that the 11 January capture of Iranians in northern Iraq provoked Iran. American forces captured five junior officials in the city of Arbil during a surprise attack that caught local Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government off guard. Those captured, we are told, were not the real targets. The real targets: Mohammed Jafari, deputy of the Iranian National Security Council; and Minojafar Frouzanda, a general and chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They managed to escape capture.

The two men were meeting with Iraqi government officials and would have made a rich prize had they successfully been kidnapped. Two heads of intelligence in American hands can provide a wealth of information on the strategic and tactical disposition of Iran. Following this, the US gave the green light for any force or militia in Iraq to seize Iranian Revolutionary Guards in that country. Bush, in a televised speech, claimed Iran as a culprit of violence in Iraq, saying that they were providing advanced explosives to insurgents.

We should also remember that on 7 February a recently retired Iranian general and senior intelligence officer dissapeared while on a private visit to Turkey. Ali Rizari Asqhari, a former deputy defence minister, is the focus of a lot of speculation. Some say that Asqhari defected while Iran claims that he was kidnapped by the US or Israel.

I know of only one senior official before defecting – one of the founders of the Revolutionary Guard – and this was after he was imprisoned in Iran. I haven’t looked in depth into the matter of defections so there may be more, though all accounts I’ve seen state that high profile defections are highly irregular. Prisoner or free-willed, Asqhari would be very valuable to the US or Israeli, if he is in fact in their custody. There’s more on this at a blog by M. Simon, who does a fair job of going through the conflicting reports of the case.

Iran also lost a diplomat to a kidnapping in February. Jalal Sharafi was taken from his car by men wearing Iraqi uniforms. As some foreign correspondents, such as Rober Fisk, point out, a military and police force that is impregnated by a multitude of factions is actively involved in kidnapings. The Iraqi unit in question is under US supervision, prompting Iran to claim that the US is responsible for the kidnaping. The US denies involvement. Sharafi reappeared today, Tuesday, after walking into the embassy off the street. More on this at the BBC and the New York Times.

Juan Cole, in an Salon.com article, seems to suggest that Ahmadinejad has a strong role in what happened. He’s politically beleaguered at home, and has had trouble forging unity in order to pass legislation from the very day he took office. Cole claims that domestic politics plays a big role in the taking of British prisoners, that a border crisis would unify Iranians behind the president and perhaps give him the opportunity to pass a new budget and distract general opposition.

Iran could also try to build on its growing influence and popularity with common Middle Eastern people, last boosted by its support of Hezbollah during Israel’ invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

The issue of contested borders between Iran and Iraq will remind Iranians of the recent war between the two countries. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died in the war they call the Imposed War. Nationalist sentiments could grow stronger because of this, and Britain and the US held responsible for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. Both the US and UK funded, armed, and even militarily supported Saddam in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, the US going so far as to supply chemical weapons.

Iran has also been the site of increased covert activity by both British and American forces. US spy drones have been increasingly flying into Iranian air space, and it’s commonly believed that the US and Britain are helping insurgents who have claimed military and civilian deaths within Southern Iran in a bid to destabalise the government.

Britain is the most convenient target as Iran tries to gain popularity in the Middle East while showing the US and UK that there are costs attached to their actions in the region. Britain’s hawks, mainly Tony Blair, are weakened, and the British Foreign Office itself has been voicing dissent over Blair’s handling of the current diplomatic tensions. Iran is betting that Blair, nor Bush, will resort to military action, that Britain will be contained by domestic politics. Also, Cole points out that British soldiers in Iraq are effectively hostages if violence was to break out over the 15 prisoners. British troops are few, and they are posted in Southern Iraq, where the Shia population is mostly allied with Iran.

  1. April 3, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    Britain was taken surprise by Iran’s seizure of their personnel. I believe Blair is now dealing with things in a way that will get his people back safely.

    The US on the other hand, is acting in a very provocative manner. Bush calling the prisoners “hostages” on the weekend was a bad call. I even saw a few Republicans calling for “regime change” in Iran. And then yesterday morning, the USS Nimitz carrier group left San Diego for the Persian Gulf. That will put 3 carrier groups in the region. Very provacative indeed.

    I think the US is going to hit Iran with missile and air strikes regardless of what happens with the British captive.

  2. April 3, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I believe that US Administration would like to maneuver into a position amenable to successful air strikes on Iran. I don’t think the current climate of the 15 British soldiers in captivity provides it.

    Bush doesn’t have the free rein he once did, nor is his main ally, Blair, in a strong political position at home.

    Having carrier groups in the area is always dangerous though, and that alone could lead to conflict. This I don’t doubt possible though I’d still refrain from predicting all out air strikes unless Iran ups the ante and provides a lot more cause for sustained and widely desployed air strikes. I wouldn’t be surprised if Iranian ships or those trading with/entering Iranian waters will be harrassed or even shot at. You will have a constant challenge of air traffic to and from Iran. This is what happened during the Iran-Iraq War, when the US sent its ships into the Gulf where they shot up ships, downed a civilian plane, and damaged refineries. That’s not the same as full strikes deep into Iran – targetting strategic sites and by consequence striking major urban centres.

    I think the Administration’s weekend growl is part of the strategy of trying to psych Iran into giving a strong unambiguous cause for military action. Let’s watch how the negotiations around the British sailors go. I won’t be surprised if Blair will be pressured by the US to have diplomacy fail while pressured by Foreign Office and MoD officials (now a little prone to leaking to the public) to pursue real diplomacy.

    Do you know how many carrier groups are actually within range or a couple of day’s range of Iran?

    Curiously, what are American choices when led by a policy forged under the New American Century that demands global dominance? How does this face off against domestic politics and restrictions? The Democrat demand of a timeline for troop withdrawl, if successful, can actually fortify the Administration’s push for casus beli v. Iran. They will view troop departure as leaving a power vacuum, with an Iraq lacking cohesion, the will, potentially the desire, and also lacking military capacity to counter-balance Iran.

    Under the doctrine of the New American Century, I believe that the US would seek to either ensure Iraq enters its orbit of influence or have it in a state of anarchy until such a time as it can be controlled.

    Despite best efforts, I don’t think enough fuel has been provided for the Administration to be able to launch the sustained strikes it wants, and if it fails to achieve this it may have to opt for anarchy in Iraq until fresh reasons for strikes or a US-friendly government takes charge and manages to establish control despite warring factions.

  3. April 3, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Some info about US carrier groups

    USS Kitty Hawk – stationed in Japan (currently at sea near Japan)
    USS Eisenhower – Somali coast
    USS Stennis – gulf of Oman
    USS Reagan – part of the 7th Fleet which is usually stationed in the Western Pacific

    Surge Ready:
    USS Nimitz – on its way to the Gulf
    USS Roosevelt – in dock at Norfolk, Virginia
    USS Truman – I think it is in the Mediteranean Sea (can’t confirm)

    CVN-70 Vinson
    CVN-72 Lincoln
    CVN-73 Washington
    CV-67 Kennedy

    USS Enterprise is at home on a break.

    I agree that the US Admin doesn’t have the clout for a sustained attack. I think only a few bombs on some key targets is how things will start. But is Iran retaliates in anyway, Bush won’t need much support to take the fight to the next level. I believe he is counting on this. That way he can blame Iran for ratcheting up the conflict.

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