Here's a very modest step the United States could take to deescalate tension with Iran and avoid war: free five Iranian officials that the U.S. arrested in Iraq and has been detaining for the last 10 months. This should be a no-brainer.
The U.S. military is mulling releasing them, and has been urged by the State Department to do so, precisely because their continued detention is an unnecessary provocation. The Los Angles Times reported Wednesday:
...senior U.S. diplomats and military officers fear that an incident on the ground in Iraq is a more likely trigger for a possible confrontation with the Islamic Republic. In one sign of their concern, U.S. military policymakers are weighing whether to release some of the Iranian personnel they have taken into custody in Iraq. Doing so could reduce the risk that radical Iranian elements might seize U.S. military or diplomatic personnel to retaliate, thus raising the danger of an escalation, a senior Defense official said.
According to former U.S. officials, the Times reports, when U.S. forces seized five Iranians in January from Iran's northern consular office in Irbil, in Kurdish Iraq, their real goal was to pick up a senior official of the Revolutionary Guard Corps who they believed was with the group. The U.S. has kept the five Iranians in jail all year, despite the protests of Iraqi and Iranian officials, and despite the urgings of some State Department officials and U.S. allies to free them.
But now, says the Times, U.S. officials appear to be coming to the conclusion that it is not worth holding some of the less valuable captives if it risks retaliation. "It might be useful to cut them loose so [the Iranians] don't have an excuse to pick up someone as a bargaining chip," said the senior Defense official.
So, if we want to avoid unnecessary provocation with Iran, we should release these Iranian officials, according to a senior U.S. Defense official. Here's another reason to release the Iranian officials: the Iraqi government has called for their release. The Iraqi government is supposedly a sovereign government - so we have been informed by the Bush Administration. If the Iraqi government is sovereign, then the Iraqi government gets to decide to invite Iranian officials to their country, and whether such officials should be arrested or released. The U.S. has put pressure on its Arab allies to respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government. How about setting a good example by respecting the sovereignty of the Iraqi government ourselves?
Here's another reason to release the Iranian officials: Iraq and Iran say the Iranian officials were "credentialed diplomats." The U.S. disputes this. Is it really in the interest of the U.S. to play hairsplitting games about who is entitled to the protection of international treaties concerning diplomats? Seems like that's just the sort of thing that could come back to bite us.
Finally, whatever the initial justifications for detaining these officials, after 10 months, there is no justification for holding them now. Whatever intelligence the U.S. can gain from them has already been gained. The notion of putting them on trial would be absurd, and therefore they must be released. Why not be done with it?
The Bush Administration, while it has cranked up tensions with Iran, assures us that they are not seeking war. This would be a great opportunity for them to prove it. Free the Irbil Five.
Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy.