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Why Iran Seized British Marines (Updated)

John on March 23, 2007 at 4:56 pm

Update 4: It doesn’t surprise me that lefty reporters at The Independent have already started telling their readers that this pre-planned kidnapping might not be a clear cut act of provocation, but you’d think editors would at least try to avoid publishing  contradictory accounts in the same paper on the same day. This leading article says:

The rights and wrongs of yesterday’s incident may, of course, be less clear-cut than they appear. It is reported that the British had just “successfully” completed the inspection of an Iranian merchant ship. Under what authority, and to what end? And while the British insist they were in Iraqi waters, local maritime borders can be contentious.

While this first hand account, also from the Independent today says:

15 Royal Marines and Navy personnel, including one woman, approached a Japanese merchant ship suspected of smuggling second-hand cars into the country without paying tax…


Commodore Lambert denied his men had strayed into Iranian waters, insisting they were half a mile inside Iraq around Marakkat Abd Allah.

Update 3: Iran is going all out. They’ve already whipped up a demonstration:

Some 500 Iranian students demonstrated against the “British aggression” on Saturday on the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab, the narrow waterway known as Arvand Roud in Persian, that divides it from Iraq.

Some have suggested that the goal is to thwart the UN resolution relating to Iran’s nuclear program. If so, it doesn’t seem to be working:

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved on Saturday new arms and financial sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment.

Update 2: The Iranians are lying about the situation, which I guess means they aren’t planning to back down:

Royal Navy personnel seized at gunpoint by Iran in the Gulf have admitted being in the country’s waters, an Iranian general has claimed.

That’s going to be a problem since both the UK and the US have already said the captured soldiers were in Iraqi waters. How do we know? According to Former Royal Navy chief Admiral Sir Alan West:

They have GPS and they have a system which allows communications. It means they know where the mother ship is and the mother ship knows where they are. GPS means they know their position exactly.

But here’s the possible blockbuster in this situation. A friend of Ahmedinejad threatened kidnappings six days ago. From the London Times March 18th:

IRAN is threatening to retaliate in Europe for what it claims is a daring undercover operation by western intelligence services to kidnap senior officers in its Revolutionary Guard.

We’ve got the ability to capture a nice bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocksAccording to Iranian sources, several officers have been abducted in the past three months and the United States has drawn up a list of other targets to be seized with the aim of destabilising Tehran’s military command.

In an article in Subhi Sadek, the Revolutionary Guard’s weekly paper, Reza Faker, a writer believed to have close links to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned that Iran would strike back.

“We’ve got the ability to capture a nice bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks,” he said. “Iran has enough people who can reach the heart of Europe and kidnap Americans and Israelis.”

This article was published March 18th. Now look at the next update below which says:

the decision to capture the soldiers was made during a March 18 emergency meeting of the High Council for Security…

So the picture that’s coming together is this. Iran’s support of terror in Iraq is an open secret. The US is secretly trying to help Iranian generals defect and the Iranians decide to kidnap some “blue-eyed blond-haired officers” to send a message. The message is this: Stop undermining our military or we kill your soldiers on state TV.

The ball is now our court.


Update (Sat.): Well, it’s official. The 15 captured British marines weren’t part of a misunderstanding. Their abduction was planned last week:

The sailors, taken at gunpoint Friday by Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Al Quds soldiers were captured intentionally and are to be used as bargaining chips to be used for the release of five Iranians who were arrested at the Iranian consul in Irbil, Iraq by US troops, an Iranian official told the daily paper Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday.

In addition, a senior Iranian military official said Saturday that the decision to capture the soldiers was made during a March 18 emergency meeting of the High Council for Security following a report by the Al-Quds contingent commander, Kassem Suleimani, to the Iranian chief of the armed forces, Maj.Gen. Hassan Firouz Abadi. In the report, according to Asharq al-Awsat, Suleimani warned Abadi that Al Quds and Revolutionary Guards’ operations had become transparent to US and British intelligence following the arrest of a senior Al Quds officer and four of his deputies in Irbil.

According to the official, Iran was worried that its detained people would leak sensitive intelligence information.

BBC has a good backgrounder on the global situation leading up to the abduction here. It notes the following:

Earlier this week the Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Western countries that if they continued to issue “threats and enforcement of coercion and violence, then undoubtedly they must know that the Iranian authorities will use all their capacities to strike enemies that attack”.

But it also seems there is an intense debate going on between different factions inside the Iranian government about how far it is really in the country’s interests to push confrontation.

So perhaps, as I suggested yesterday, Ahmadinejad was taken by surprise and cancelled his UN appearance to deal with the internal crisis at home.

Finally, here’s a map of the area from the BBC page linked above:


[End update]

Time Magazine has the best piece I’ve seen today on possible reasoning behind the seizure of 15 British Marines this morning:

The most ominous detail about Iran’s seizure of 15 British Royal Marines in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway on Friday morning is that the servicemen were reportedly taken into custody by the navy of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a powerful, separate branch of the Iranian armed forces. Soaked with nationalist ideology, it has grown into a state within a state in Iran, with its own naval, air and ground forces, parallel to official government institutions. The IRGC is directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate font of religious and political power in Iran. The IRGC also has its own intelligence arm and commands irregular forces such as the basij — a voluntary paramilitary group affiliated with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — and the Quds force, which has been accused by the U.S. of supplying material to Iraqi insurgents bent on killing American soldiers.

As it happens, on the same day a British commander in the south gave an interview to the BBC in which he claimed that most insurgent attacks in the area were being funded by Iran:

Insurgents in southern Iraq are being funded by Iran to stage attacks on British forces stationed in Basra, a senior army officer said in a BBC interview Friday.

Lieutenant-Colonel Justin Maciejewski conceded, however, that he had “no smoking gun” to prove Iranian interference in Basra, where British troops come under regular mortar and rocket attack.

But he said local community leaders informed him that Iranian agents were paying local men 500 dollars a month to carry out attacks and providing them with sophisticated modern weapons.

Maciejewski, the commanding officer at the British base at Basra Palace, the British Army headquarters, said he had “no reason to disbelieve the reports. “

If, as Time suggests, this seizure is the work of a separatist force run by Ayatullah Ali Khamenei that might also explain Ahmedinejad’s sudden decision not to leave Iran to speak to the UN:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad canceled his plan to visit the United Nations, and he and the U.S. dispute the reasons.

`Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadinejad’s decision not to travel to New York is false,” Casey [U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey] said in an e-mail to reporters.

It’s just speculation on my part, but maybe Ahmedinejad didn’t authorize the seizure and was suddenly faced with an internal power struggle at home. The Time article concludes:

An Arab surce [sic] in the gulf believes that the incident may have been an Iranian political message to the U.S. and the world — a reminder that Iran has assets in the gulf to threaten American and its allies there.

Maybe. Or maybe the pressure is starting to crack Iran’s fragile leadership to pieces.

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