Seizure of Iranians Failed to Validate Bush Line

The George W. Bush administration’s campaign to seize and detain Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials in Iraq, presented by Bush himself last January as a move to break up an alleged Iranian arms smuggling operation in Iraq, appears to have run its course without having been able to link a single Iranian to any such operation.

Despite administration rhetoric suggesting that the U.S. military had solid intelligence on which to base a campaign to break up Iranian-sponsored networks supplying armour-piercing weapons, what is now known about the kidnapping operations indicates that the actual purpose was to obtain some evidence from interrogations that would support the administration’s line that the IRGC’s elite Quds Force is involved in assisting Shi’ite forces militarily.

None of the six Iranians now held by the U.S. military, however, has provided any evidence for the administration’s case despite many months of very tough interrogation usually employed on "high value" detainees.

Wayne White, former deputy director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, told IPS he believes the administration badly wanted to get information from the Iranian detainees that they could use to make their case, but has been unable to do so.

"I’m convinced that they haven’t gotten anything out of them," he said in an interview. "They haven’t come up with anything they can shop around."

The program has also been a political embarrassment in relations with U.S. allies in Iraq. U.S. military seizures of Iranians who the U.S. military claimed were IRGC Quds Force officers have been condemned not only by the Shi’ite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but by Kurdish leaders as well. The U.S. military apologised in August for "a regrettable incident" in which eight Iranians were arrested in Baghdad, and then freed after Iraqi protests.

The U.S. quietly released nine Iranian detainees last week, two of whom were seized in the Kurdish city of Erbil in January, saying they were "of no continuing intelligence value." The others do not appear to have been part of the deliberate targeting of Iranian officials.

What was later learned about the U.S. raids on Iranian officials in Kurdistan last January and again in September and in Baghdad last December shows that the U.S. military was targeting Iranians merely on the basis of their affiliation with the IRGC, while claiming publicly to have intelligence of their involvement in weapons trafficking.

The Jan. 10 raid was on an Iranian liaison office that had been operating in the Kurdistan capital of Erbil for 10 years with official Iraqi government approval. The U.S. military issued only a vaguely-worded rationale for kidnapping the five Iranians, saying they were "suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition forces…"

That was a thinly-veiled allusion to their suspected membership in the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iraq’s Kurdish foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, who demanded the release of the five Iranians, explained that they were not part of a "clandestine network" but were working on visas and other paperwork for travel by Iraqis to Iran. Zebari pointed out that the men were working for the Revolutionary Guard Corps because that institution has the responsibility for controlling Iran’s borders.

It is also common for IRGC officers to be given positions in a wide range of non-military Iranian government agencies. That was the case with Mahmoud Farhadi, the Iranian official kidnapped by U.S. military from a hotel in Soleimanieh, Kurdistan Sep. 20.

U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Mark Fox told reporters that Farhadi was a member of the "Ramadan Corps" of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard command responsible for all Iranian operations inside Iraq and the "linchpin" behind the smuggling of "sophisticated weapons" into Iraq by the Quds Force.

But officials of the Kurdistan regional government and the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, publicly confirmed the Iranian government’s assertion that Farhadi was a civilian official of the Kermanshah province governor-general’s office on a "commercial mission with the knowledge of the federal government in Baghdad and the government of Kurdistan."

Again, Kurdish authorities did not contest the fact that Farhadi had been in the IRGC. The governor of Suleymaniye, Dana Majeed, acknowledged his IRGC membership to National Public Radio a week after the U.S. kidnapping, but insisted that his job was to expedite trade and transit across the border.

The U.S. military was apparently operating on the basis of information from the Iranian armed opposition group Mujahideen E Khalq (MEK) that was badly out of date. The political arm of the MEK, the National Council or Resistance of Iran, which had been providing information to U.S. intelligence on the Iranian nuclear programme and on Iranian officials operating in Iraq, published a detailed article on Farhadi Sep. 25 which claimed that he was the commander of the Quds Force Zafar Base and said nothing about his having working for the province on cross-border trade.

But an article in a local Kurdish language daily in Soleminiye on Sep. 24 reported that an "informed source" belonging to unnamed "Iranian opposition group – obviously the MEK – had used the past tense in regard to Farhadi’s role as Quds Force commander and acknowledged that Farhadi was now working in a commercial delegation.

In December 2006, two accredited Iranian diplomats were kidnapped from the Embassy car on the way from praying at a mosque and later had to be released. But four other Iranian officials were kidnapped in the compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shi’ite political party called SCIRI, who had visited Bush three weeks earlier. They were in the home of the chairman of the Parliamentary security committee and head of the Badr organisation.

The official explanation was that they were being detained on "suspicion of carrying out or planning attacks against Iraqi security forces." But the Iraqi interlocutors are part of the Iraqi government which supports the occupation and opposes the Madhi army. If the Iranian officials detained were actually plotting with their hosts to attack Iraqi security forces, it would have meant that the SCIRI and the Badr Group were planning to attack their own government.

U.S. military officials claimed to the Washington Post that they had captured maps of Baghdad delineating Sunni Shi’ite and mixed neighbourhoods that would be useful for militias, lists of weapons systems and "information about importing modern, specially shaped explosive charges into Iran."

But Laura Rozen of the National Journal quoted a U.S. official as saying that the evidence was far less conclusive than was claimed. "They are trying to walk this back," said the official. "There are no smoking guns about Iran in Iraq."

None of the allegedly damning evidence was mentioned in the Feb. 11 military briefing to the U.S. media on the alleged Quds Force EFP smuggling, indicating that these claims were vastly exaggerated.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.