A dangerous game of chicken is being played out today in Iran and Iraq. It involves political figures whose behavior pattern comes closer to that of elementary school children than sober adults. In Tehran, four and possibly five Americans have been seized and are being held–most of them in a prison associated with torture–and a well-known Canadian journalist has died in detention.
In Baghdad, over the strong protests of the host government, American forces continue to hold five Iranian diplomats who were dispatched to the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil to do advance work for the opening of a consulate. They are “Cheney’s hostages,” one diplomat recently told me. Orders had been given to seize two prominent Iranian political and state security figures who went on a mission to visit with Iraq’s Kurdish leadership. They escaped. Instead the mission came up with the small fry, five members of their logistical support team. “This was done expressly to embarrass the Kurdish leadership, including President Talabani, and to tell them ‘if you have dealings with the Iranians behind our backs, we’ll burn you.’ It was, strictly speaking, illegal from many different angles, but more importantly it reflects the attitude of a colonial overlord from the nineteenth century, hardly reconcilable with America’s promise to ‘build democracy’ in Iraq.”
Robin Wright offers an important update on the hostage drama in this morning’s Washington Post.
The United States will not release five Iranians detained in a U.S. military raid in northern Iraq until at least October, despite entreaties from the Iraqi government and pressure from Iran, U.S. officials said. The delay is as much due to a communication and procedural foul-up within the U.S. government as a policy decision, they added. During his Washington visit this week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari appealed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to free the Iranians, who were arrested in Irbil in January, U.S. and Arab officials said.
Zebari told U.S. officials that the release would help the new U.S.-Iran dialogue on Iraq, which brought diplomats from the two nations together last month in Baghdad at their first public meeting in almost three decades. Iran has become pivotal to U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq because Tehran exerts great influence in Iraq with a wide cross-section of parties and has armed and trained many militant groups. Zebari also warned that Tehran might not attend a second session unless the Iranians are released, the sources said.
The U.S. raid on Iran’s northern liaison office Jan. 11 was designed to detain two senior Iranian officials who were visiting Iraq, U.S. officials said. The two escaped arrest, but U.S. commandos did detain five mid-level operatives working with Iran’s elite Quds Force, which is the foreign operations wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is tied to arming, training and funding militants in Iraq.
Wright reports that they are subject to a six-month review process. She fails to make clear exactly what is meant, but this is a reference to the Combined Review and Release Board–an internal administrative board operated by U.S. Forces in Iraq whose sole function appears to be to allow Pentagon PR personnel to say that those held in arbitrary detention and in violation of Iraqi and international law (and in violation of Security Council Resolution 1546) have their cases “reviewed by a panel every six months.” As a member of the CRRB told me “there is nothing independent about this process. Our role is to direct the continued detention of anyone the command authority wants to detain. There is no review of claims, defenses or evidence–no hearing of witnesses. Justice has nothing to do with it.” Similarly, the six month period is a joke–they can and do review cases whenever it suits them, which is usually when journalists are asking pesky questions.
What does the detention of the Arbil Five have to do with the detention of the Americans in Tehran? Everything. If you look at the Iranian statements, you’ll see that both the number and the accusations against the Americans have been carefully made to parallel what happened in Iraq. This is a simple case of one gross injustice being countered with another one. Of two nation-states behaving like schoolyard bullies. And who suffers? Well, my sympathies are with the Americans in captivity in Tehran, of course. Some of these folks are well-respected scholars, voices of moderation–voices that are badly needed just now. But I can’t deny being a bit angry about what has been done in America’s name with the Arbil Five. It’s an outrage, and it’s shameful. This elementary-school situation cries out for the principal to come and intervene.