I'll Give You Dozens of Terrorists, You Give Me One Journalist, OK?
It's a bit more complicated than that, but the bottom line is that we are turning loose Iranian terrorists in exchange for the release of Roxana Saberi, plus, probably, three British hostages. The first payment arrived today in Tehran, to a triumphant reception. Ugh.
The terrorists in question are officers in the Iranian Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. They were captured in Irbil, Iraq, in January, 2007, as the "surge" was getting under way. A few weeks earlier, other Iranians had been arrested in Baghdad. For our military leaders, it was an open and shut case. The Iranian military officers had been involved in several operations in which Americans had been killed, and, even though they claimed "diplomatic status," the evidence against them was thoroughly convincing. One American official who saw the documentation at the time told me "they are not just enemies; they're criminals."
Nonetheless, from the very beginning, powerful American officials argued that the Iranian terrorists should be handled on an "arrest and release" basis, because to hold them for any significant length of time would enrage the mullahs. As the New York Sun wrote editorially:
On one side are the Central Intelligence Agency, which has flubbed nearly every assignment it's had in this war, and the State Department, whose very DNA seems to make it incapable of supporting a hard line. These agencies are arguing that the Iranians will escalate their war against us if the captives are not returned.
On the other side are the Marines, special operations forces, and the Army, all arguing that the risk is too great if these men are at large. This is apparently a decision — like the decision to conduct the raid that led to their arrest — that is going to have to be made by the commander in chief. It should be an easy call for a war president.
It was, in the event, an easy call: the "Irbil Five" remained in American detention. Every time somebody in the American government suggested it would be good to release them, the military leaders spat. Until now.
American officials, eager to pretend that "their hands were tied," will point you to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which in theory gives the Iraqi Government control over everything and everybody in the country, including detainees. The language is typical legalese, but American military officers recognized that the Agreement would oblige us, on request, to turn over all the prisoners we had captured, from Day One. For that reason, they fought a heated but ultimately unsuccessful battle against it. Some of our highest ranking officers begged their civilian commanders to make special provision for the likes of the Irbil Five. They didn't want them back on the battlefield, either in Iraq or Afghanistan, areas where their lethal expertise would inevitably be used to kill more Americans and our coalition allies.
But the government's excuses only go so far, for like the provisions that give the Iraqis total control of their air space, they are theoretically binding but practically impossible to carry out, at least in the short term. Iraq does not have the facilities for all of our prisoners, any more than it can patrol and defend its air space, or provide air cover for ground operations. So it was understood by both sides that Iraqi sovereignty would be extended gradually. And our men and women on the ground intended to hold the Iranian terrorists--of whom there are more than thirty important agents and officers, and many hundred lower level operatives--as long as they could.
But then Roxana Saberi was thrown into Evin Prison in Tehran, and the Obama Administration started negotiations with the mullahs. I have been told that the key office in the American Government was Vice President Joe Biden's, and that the Swiss Government (our official liaison to Tehran) played an active role. In early May, the deal was arranged: more than thirty Iranian "VIP" detainees would be released (first to the Iraqis, then to the Iranians), and then, in the fullness of time, several hundred (repeat, several hundred) others of less importance. Within days, Iraqi leader Maliki flew to Iran to work out the details. Saberi was quickly released, and the triumphal return to Iran for the Five was scheduled for shortly after the Iranian elections.
If you look back over the last two months, I think you can see the pattern. In early June, for example, the U.S. military released another high-profile terrorist who had worked closely with Iran: Laith Qazali. Bill Roggio gives us his profile:
Laith is the brother of Qais Qazali, the commander of the Qazali network, which is better known as the Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous. Qais Qazali was a spokesman and senior aide to Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr. The terror group, which was part of the Mahdi Army until the spring of 2008, has received extensive financial and military support from Iran's Qods Force, the external division that backs Hezbollah and is tasked with supporting the Khomeinist Islamist revolution.
On the occasion of Qazali's release, the United States government did not spread its arms and say "what could we do? It's part of the deal," they described it "as part of a reconciliation effort" as well as an attempt to secure the release of captive British hostages, according to a report in The New York Times," as Roggio wrote.
The British hostages are yet another complicating factor. The Iranians held five of them, civilian workers rounded up in Iraq. The Iranians demanded the release of some of their terrorists in Guantanamo, and various other humiliating acts by the British Government, including, at last report, public endorsement of Ahmadinezhad's "reelection." As the negotiations played out, the Brits made a series of gestures to Hezbollah, and asked us to release various Iranian prisoners, from Guantanamo to Iraq (Qazali apparently being one such). Last time I checked, two of the unfortunate British souls turned up dead. Perhaps the failure to accept Iranian conditions explains the recent vitriol against the British government.
But at least some powerful Iranians have found some nice words for the American government, although others continue the "Death to America!" chant so typical of the regime. And what were those nice words? A description of American surrender to Iran's nuclear intentions:
"America accepts a nuclear Iran, but Britain and France cannot stand a nuclear Iran," Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, said in an interview on state television on Wednesday.
Why would Velayati, one of the nastiest characters in the cabal around Supreme Leader Khamenei, say such a thing? My guess is that American acceptance was wigwagged to the Iranians during the Saberi negotiations by an authoritative administration personage.
All of these humiliating concessions have been made in the name of the need for serious talks between Washington and Tehran. But if Velayati is telling the truth, we've already given away the whole store. If there are going to be further talks, they will be of the sort we've seen in recent days with the Russians: fluff and circumstance.
As I've often said, God has an exquisite sense of humor, and it would certainly be delicious, and perhaps even Divine, if the mullahcracy were to fall just as its vision of bringing America to her knees seemed about to be fulfilled. In case you missed it, Iran's highest-ranking clerical leader, the Ayatollah Montazeri, just issued a fatwa that declares the current regime illegitimate, and tells the Iranian people that they are entitled to remove it.
I am told by people who study these documents that the Montazeri fatwa is virtually identical to the one issued by his one-time mentor, the Ayatollah Khomeini, shortly before the overthrow of the shah. They are words with teeth, and there are many Iranians who will act on them.
Hell, there's millions of Iranians trying to overthrow the regime right now, they didn't need the fatwa.
Faster, Please! Please...