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Slam Dunk: The Bush Administration Is Trying to Provoke Iran

by Robert Naiman

The Bush Administration is once again escalating its confrontation with Iran. Clearly they have multiple motivations for doing so. They're trying to "change the channel" from the failure of the "surge," ahead of the September Congressional debate on Iraq. They would dearly love to split off from the Democratic opposition on Iraq Members of Congress who share the AIPAC goal of confronting Iran. And they want to undermine negotiations taking place between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency over Iran's nuclear program.

But details have emerged from the recent escalation that strongly indicate what many have long suspected: the Bush Administration's fundamental conflict with Iran is not about its nuclear program or alleged weapons smuggling - so far unproven - into Iraq.

It's simply a great-power struggle for influence. And while there's nothing too shocking about that, people in the United States should ask themselves - and be asked by others - what sacrifices we are really willing to bear so that the Bush Administration can try to keep Iran from having the influence in Iraq that they would normally have - and almost certainly will have - if there is a democratic government in Iraq, given that 60% of the Iraqi population is Shiite and has strong cultural and religious ties to their co-religionists in Iran. How many U.S. soldiers' lives is that goal worth? How many billions of U.S. tax dollars?

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported:

Members of an Iranian Energy Ministry delegation were arrested and held overnight by American troops in Baghdad for having unauthorized weapons, before being released this morning, American and Iraqi officials said in Baghdad. Iranian officials protested the detentions today. The group had been invited to Baghdad to help resolve Iraq's electricity crisis, Iraqi and Iranian officials said.

A media adviser to the Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq told Reuters news agency that the group was in Baghdad at the invitation of Iraq's Ministry of Electricity to help build a power station in the Shiite city of Najaf.Why were these Iranians arrested by U.S. troops if, according to Iraqi officials, they were part of an Energy Ministry delegation invited to Baghdad to "help resolve Iraq's electricity crisis"? That Iraq has a serious electricity crisis is well known. Surely such assistance should be welcomed. There must have been some mistake.

Not so, apparently, The Times reports. A manager at the hotel where the Iranians were staying said:

"I told [the US soldiers] that the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity had invited them, that they were guests of the ministry and that we had a letter from the ministry confirming this."

So, prior to the Iranians' arrest, U.S. soldiers were aware that the hotel where the Iranians were staying had proof that the Iranians were in Iraq at the invitation of Iraq's Energy Ministry.

What was the point of arresting these officials? Surely the U.S. forces could have anticipated that they would be compelled politically to quickly release them, since, as they knew, these officials were in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. There is a strong whiff of harassment and provocation about this.

Here is something very simple Congress could do to indicate that they are serious about preventing the Bush Administration from provoking a war with Iran. They could mandate that U.S. forces in Iraq cannot arrest Iranian government officials who can prove that they are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, unless they have explicit authorization from the "sovereign" Iraqi government to do so.

Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy.

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