- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

The British seamen

After 30-odd years of watching and writing about foreign affairs on a daily basis, you develop a sort of gut instinct that helps you make sense of developing stories, understand the motivations of the players and anticipate what is going to happen next.

But there was a great deal about the saga of the 15 British sailors and marines held captive in Iran for two weeks that simply didn’t add up — at least for me — and little that I read elsewhere helped to answer my questions.

Were the 14 men and one woman seized as part of a calculated plan worked out at high levels in Tehran, or was it a spontaneous action by Iranian forces on patrol in the Persian Gulf?

If it was a calculated plan, which of several competing factions in the Iranian ruling circles was behind it? And what was the point?

Why did several of the captives make televised “confessions” to being in Iranian waters when their government insisted they were not?

From the beginning, there were reasons to suspect a calculated plan. The initial reports said the Britons had been captured by members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is highly organized and, as we had recently reported, increasingly is involving itself in politics. The speed with which the captives were rushed to Tehran also suggested prior planning.

A big piece of the puzzle seemed to fall into place within days, when a freelance reporter in Iran told me in an e-mail about a conversation he had held with a well-connected former Iranian diplomat.

Noting that several Iranians — described as diplomats by Iran and as Revolutionary Guardsmen by the United States — have been detained in Iraq since January, the former diplomat had told reporter Iason Athanasiadis that he found it unlikely that the Britons would be released before the Iranians were.

The former diplomat was unwilling to be quoted by name, so we were reluctant to lead a story with his comment. But we did want to get it into print, so we used it very high in a March 28 story that led with public remarks by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Link denied

We also noted in that story that another veteran of the Revolutionary Guard, former Deputy Defense Minister Alireza Askari, had disappeared in February after having been last seen in Istanbul, and was believed by some to have defected to the West.

Both the United States and Iran denied any connection between the British personnel and the prisoners in Iraq, but the notion continued to percolate.

Suggestions of a link finally broke into the news pages on Tuesday with the announcement that an Iranian diplomat had been returned to Tehran after two months of being held captive by an unidentified armed group in Iraq.

The Associated Press also quoted an Iraqi official saying the Baghdad government was working for the release of the five Iranians who were in U.S. custody “to help in the release of the British sailors and marines.”

We gave good play to the AP story in Wednesday’s paper, feeling that it seemed to verify our earlier reporting from Tehran. So it was a bit of a jolt when, later on Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the British captives were to be released with no further reference to the Iranian prisoners in Iraq.

Was the Iranian who went home on Tuesday so important — for reasons we don’t understand — that his release was enough to win freedom for the Britons? Was some larger deal worked out with elements that have not yet become apparent? Or were the Iranians simply seeking a propaganda victory that had nothing to do with the prisoners in Iraq?

These are questions our reporters are continuing to ask. We will be particularly interested to see what happens to the Iranians in Iraq in the coming weeks.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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