The savvy Mahdists of Tehran have returned the 15 abducted Britons after a conditional surrender not only by London and Prime Minister Blair but also by Washington and President Bush.
The results are that, while Britain and America have not yet fled from the field, they have stumbled at the scene; also, for an undetermined time, the American air and sea assault on Iran is postponed.
In 20th century history, this unforced failure is similar to Chamberlain’s blundering with the crisis in Spain in the spring of 1938 before his calculated submission at Munich in the fall of 1938. Imminent continental defeats are marked by regional foreshadows.
The conditions of London’s and Washington’s surrender to Tehran are critical. Not all of the quid pro quos are yet clarified — chief among them the unresolved hostage exchange as well as the foreboding delay of the bombing campaign. Before examining the details, most of which favor Tehran, it is useful to review the success of the Mahdists and the bumbling of the coalition in London and Washington.
1. Tehran did not grab the 15 with a witting plan beforehand. The dhow-like, India-flagged freighter that the Cornwell’s boarding party inspected on March 23 was a Mahdist weapons cache bound for Iraq. The IRGC commander who attacked the Britons did so spontaneously to protect the cargo. There was nothing organized about this operation. It was not intended to send a message. It was about the dhow, which has since delivered its weapons to the Iraqi thugs and returned to Iran waters.
2. What impressed intelligence observers was how quickly Tehran figured out how to take advantage of the 15 captives. The Mahdists are confident, shrewd, proficient, unflinching, and they can improvise when under threat.
3. The threat for Tehran came on March 25, two days after the Britons were haphazardly abducted, when Moscow convinced Tehran that the US/UK coalition was preparing to launch an air assault on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities and attendant air defenses, command and control nodes, and sea defenses. Moscow told Tehran the strike date was by or on Friday, April 6. Surprisingly, in the same time frame that Tehran learned of the attack, a dutiful Russian journalist associated with Russian military authorities, Andrei Uglanov, published details of what he claimed was the American plan to attack Iran, called “Operation Bite,” scheduled at 0400 local time in Iran, Friday, April 6, to be launched by US forces from sea and from the Indian Ocean fortress of Diego Garcia. Uglanov’s report rapidly blanketed the internet in many languages.
4. Tehran regarded the Russian report as credible and began the manipulation of the hostages over the next week. Tehran’s propaganda film festival of Leading Seaman Faye Turney at first, then of other sailors and Marines, was meant to intimidate London, agitate the Gulf, and slow Blair’s hand.
5. As London softened, Tehran looked around for prizes. On Monday, April 2, Tehran’s National Security Adviser Ali Larijani opined that the stand-off could be resolved by diplomatic bargaining. On Tuesday, April 3, at London’s request Washington released the IRGC agent, Jalal Sharafi, who had been detained February 4 in Baghdad. London’s concession was so blatant that it required President Bush to speak in obfuscation, “I strongly support [Tony Blair’s] declaration that there should be no quid pro quos when it comes to the hostages.”
6. Tehran also wanted London to convince Washington that it must hand back to Tehran the five IRGC agents detained January 11 in Irbil. Washington was not immediately aware how to oblige London just after President Bush had said in plain language that there would be “no quid pro quos.”
7. More, Tehran wanted an apology from London for the invasion of Iranian waters by a boarding party that had never left Iraqi waters. London was not immediately aware how it could ask Prime Minister Blair to apologize for something that had not happened just after Blair’s office had said there would be no apology.
8. Most critically, Tehran wanted London and Blair to force Washington and Bush to call off the Moscow-warned strike on Iran. Tehran was prepared for a US attack; but it wanted the US blow to be a counterattack to a pre-emptive attack by Iran on a US asset or ally. Washington moving first did not suit Tehran’s plans for how it would gain supremacy in the region. On Tuesday, April 3, Prime Minister Blair announced that “the next forty-eight hours will be fairly critical.” The message to Tehran was blunt. Blair would stand back and let Washington carry on in the manner described by Moscow unless the hostages were returned immediately.
9. On Wednesday, April 4, President Ahmadinejad announced the 15 Britons would be released as an "Easter gift" to London. This may or may not have been a taunt about the Good Friday air attack. The information is that Tehran worked assiduously and heatedly to persuade London to stop the US attack; and the swift hostage return was Tehran’s side of the bargain.
10. On Thursday, April 5, the Britons were released in exchange for London and Washington satisfying agreed conditions. Suddenly, news came of an ambush of a British Army detail near Basra. In London, there was a cloud over the announcement of the hostage return. Prime Minister Blair hinted that Iran might be involved. Four British soldiers were killed in action, two of them females. Who did it? What did it mean?
Now we come to the prickly conditions of the deal which can be called for what it is, a hostage exchange.
The first condition for the deal was that London apologize for the incident. And so Prime Minister Blair did apologize to Tehran for invading Iranian waters; however, the Prime Minister apologized in a message through an intermediary, a démarche, and not in a letter or in person, so it is technically true that there was no London apology.
The second condition was that Washington release the five IRGC agents taken at Irbil. On Thursday, April 5, coterminous with the release of the Britons, Washington permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit with the five IRGC agents for the first time since their detention. One of the Red Cross visitors spoke Farsi and was suspect of being a Tehran agent. By explanation, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared, "There’s no inclination right now to let them go," and "Iraqi government officials and US officials are discussing if there’s some way, perhaps, that there could be some kind of Iranian access to them." On April 6, an Iraqi Kurdish strongman, Massoud Barzani, gave an interview in which he suggested that the five IRGC agents detained by America in Irbil were in "the wrong place at the wrong time," and were actually official Kurdish "guests." Perhaps this is true; or perhaps Barzani is preparing the ground for releasing the five.
Tehran does not trust either Blair or Bush to complete the hostage exchange. Tehran’s doubts contributed to the launch of the murder raid on the British team near Basra within hours of the release of the 15 from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. The ambush was not the work of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdist Army but rather of IRGC special forces, using one of their best weapons, an EFP bomb (explosively formed projectile). It was a deliberate assassination meant to communicate to London what was coming if the Americans didn’t keep London’s promise to return hostages for hostages.
The information is that Tehran did not know that one of the four massacred British soldiers, Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer, was a personal friend of Prince William. Blair was appalled by the slaughter. Not coincidentally, the British forces struck back at the Iraqi Army-manned roadblock that protected the escaping assassins. The British fought an effective if localized gun battle against US-trained and -armed Mahdists who wear the Iraqi uniform. The Prime Minister and the royal family are correctly alarmed at the pending May deployment of Prince Harry to this same sector.
What of the U.S. air strike? Tehran was prepared for the attack on April 6. Tehran manipulated the 15 hostages to delay the strike and win the hostage game. Yet Tehran knows that Washington has likely merely moved the date and will now begin the heavy-handed decision-making process all over again as to when and if to launch. The Kuwait-based Arab Times reported last week that President Bush is gathering material for a speech to the American people to announce an attack on Iran later in the spring. Not waiting for Washington to catch up to the quickened pace, Tehran now orders its surrogate Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which has penetrated the Iraqi military, to demonstrate nationalist fervor to hector the Americans as the "archenemy," perhaps to begin the next turn of the screw. Perhaps also, Ahmadinejad’s bally-hooed but obtuse remarks on Monday April 9 that Iran "can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale," is another of his taunts at Washington now that he knows the missiles are not flying in the next hours.
Tehran remains cocksure that Washington and London are incapable of acting effectively in a crisis. If this clumsily resolved hostage episode is a measure of how Washington and London will react in the coming weeks, when a Tehran-launched spectacular strategic strike on U.S. assets or infrastructure is expected in the region — perhaps momentarily in order to pre-empt the coiled US strike — or in the coming summer, when Tehran’s surrogates, Syria, Hamas, Al Aqsa and Hizballah, all launch on Israel, there is license to presume the worst.
Nineteen-thirty-eight was the very worst. It is instructive to examine how badly London handled Berlin’s aggression in the proxy war in Spain in order to see how badly Washington and London are handling the proxy war in Iraq and how much failure is ahead. In June 1938 in Spain, the Berlin- and Rome-backed fascist forces under Generalissimo Francisco Franco were slaughtering the London- and Paris-backed leftist government forces. British ships, trying to resupply the losing side, were bombed by Italian aircraft and pirated by German ships. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s genius to settle all this was to make peace directly with Berlin. Chamberlain communicated to "Chancellor Hitler" that he was prepared to force France to close the Spanish frontier, to force France to break off its treaty alliance with Russia, to return the African colonies Germany was stripped of at Versailles, and to grant Germany complete access to British markets around the world without penalty. In sum, in order to avoid a general war on the continent, Chamberlain offered conditional surrender to German belligerence. And Chamberlain did this while the headlines announced daily the expulsion of robbed and beaten Jews from Austria and Germany; the guillotine execution of accused rebels at Ploetzensee prison in Berlin, including Liaselote Hermann, 28, mother of a four-year-old; and the constant German boasts to reclaim the so-called German territory in Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium. Chamberlain’s eyes were open, and yet he walked with his hands up toward the predator’s guns.
The parallels between Hitler’s Nazi Berlin and Ahmadinejad’s Mahdist Tehran are dumbfounding. As are the parallels between today and the dreadful following spring, 1939, as London watched the unappeased Germany and its surrogate Italy brutalize capital after capital on the continent. All Britain could think to do was to begin general conscription and to shudder. The still-powerless Winston Churchill, Independent Conservative, rose in Parliament on April 13, 1939, to make remarks that attach as well to this April of 2007: "Danger now is very near. A great part of the world is, to a large extent, mobilized tonight. Everywhere frontier defenses are manned. Everywhere it is felt that some new stroke is in train. If it should fall, can there be any doubt that we will be involved?"