The kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad by gunmen dressed in Iraqi security force uniforms has ignited new tensions between Iran and Washington, as the Islamic regime said it was holding the US directly responsible for his release and safe return.
The circumstances surrounding the abduction of Jalal Sharafi, a second secretary at Iran's embassy in Baghdad, were confused. But it came amid accusations from the Bush administration that Iran was arming Shia militias fighting US troops, and an ever-growing confrontation over Tehran's nuclear programme.
According to an Iraqi official, Mr Sharafi was detained on Sunday by an Iraqi army unit that reports directly to the US military, outside the Baghdad branch of the Iranian Bank Melli. Some accounts spoke of a gun battle before the car carrying the diplomat escaped.
An American spokesman denied yesterday that US troops or Iraqis under their command were involved. "It was not an MNF-I (Multinational Forces-Iraq) unit that participated in that event," the spokesman said. But his version of events was contradicted by Iranian officials. According to a spokesman in Tehran, Mr Sharafi had been kidnapped by a group linked to Iraq's defence ministry "which works under the supervision of American forces" - and American forces were thus "responsible for the life and safety" of the diplomat.
In Baghdad's chaotic conditions, the line between political violence and common crime is often blurred at best. But this affair comes less than four weeks after US forces detained five Iranians at the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, saying they were meddling in internal Iraqi affairs. That incident was quickly followed by US claims that Iran was supplying arms and training to militias that had attacked US troops - although no detailed evidence has yet been made public.
The confrontation between the two countries over Iraq only magnifies the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, now that Tehran has ignored threats of tougher United Nations sanctions by installing 328 centrifuges for uranium enrichment at its underground Natanz complex south of the capital.
Western diplomats say the move potentially opens the way for larger scale enrichment, which could produce enough weapons-grade fissile material to build nuclear warheads, and Iranian officials themselves have boasted that Natanz would soon be housing 3,000 centrifuges and, ultimately, 54,000 of them.
Despite the possibility of UN action, Iran appears to be convinced that neither China nor Russia, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, would sign up to severe economic and diplomatic sanctions. It seems to be betting that after the Iraq debacle, the Americans have neither the stomach nor international support for military action.
But the Bush administration has carefully refused to rule out an attack on Natanz and Iran's other nuclear facilities, and recently sent a second aircraft carrier group to the Gulf - a deployment seen as a clear warning to Iran that the US was ready to strike if necessary.
Despite protestations from Mr Bush and the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, that Washington is pursuing every diplomatic avenue, fears are widespread that military action is all but inevitable.
Testifying to Congress last week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser to former president Jimmy Carter, warned of an incident that could trigger "a US war of self-defence quote unquote" against Iran, that would have disastrous consequences in the region and beyond. In London, Tony Blair told a parliamentary committee yesterday that Iran was pursuing a strategy "to create maximum trouble" and was trying to prevent reconciliation between Shia and Sunni in Iraq. But although no option had been ruled out, "no one is talking about or planning military intervention" against Iran, the Prime Minister insisted.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited