Certain signs indicate that Washington may be cautiously examining Iran's friendly signals and even welcome shared efforts in the solution of Iraq's complex problems.
Some informed DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources say the Americans are quietly pleased with Tehran's approval of the prisoner exchange which went through this week between its Lebanese proxy the Hizballah and Israel.
For the first time since the Israeli airman Ron Arad was captured alive 18 years ago after bailing out over Lebanon, Iranian officials have publicly mentioned his name, although they denied he was in their hands. Israel accuses Lebanese Shiite Amal leader, Mustafa Dirani, who was handed back to the Hizballah Thursday, January 29, of selling him to Iranian intelligence after a period of holding him in inhuman conditions. A high price has been offered for any information about the navigator's fate.
For the return of Arad dead or alive to Israel, Germany has additionally and secretly offered to free the Iranian terrorist Kazem Darabi and two Lebanese killers responsible for the 1992 murder of Said Charafkandi, then secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant.
Another six Lebanese and other Muslims jailed in Switzerland and France are also expected to be part of this trade.
It is hard to fathom the logic of an uneven “swap” which set free hundreds of terrorists, Palestinians, Hizballah and other Lebanese, Syrians, Sudanese, and a Libyan. Most Israelis are flat against the exchange, certain it will encourage terrorists to go on snatching and killing more Israelis as bargaining chips for hordes of live Arab terrorists.
Iranian and Syrian intelligence have always coveted the capture of Israeli airmen, as sources of choice secrets on the workings of the Israeli Air Force. They were especially prized by Russian intelligence, before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow has always been ready to lay out large sums and intelligence data for access to Israeli air combat crewmen, interested most of all in questioning them on US-Israeli operational and intelligence ties.
Lacking concrete information, the general consensus of Israeli experts on MIAs in Arab hands is that, in the late 1980s, he was smuggled out of Lebanon to Iran and held in isolation in a prison in northern Tehran, where he was interrogated for months under torture by Iranian and Russian agents. Since Iran could never admit it was indeed holding the airman, he is thought to have died of untreated injuries and buried in an unmarked grave in a Muslim cemetery in the Iranian capital.
Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah has effected a change of face over the prisoner exchange deal and its next stage, delivering a dual message. He is now say Ron Arad is in Lebanon, which he denied for years, and that Hizballah's “Syrian and Iranian brothers” are now offering to help solve the mystery of what happened to him. The inference is that information hitherto denied may now be on offer and possibly even his remains.
In his public statements, the Hizballah chief deliberately leaves the quid pro quo vague to keep everyone guessing. But he hints that if Israel were willing to free 450 terrorists for a shady businessman and the bodies of three soldiers, information on the missing airman would naturally come a lot higher.
(DEBKAfile reported exclusively on January 27 in an article entitled “Iran, Europe are part of Hezbollah's POW Sting Operation” that Nasrallah's last price would be about 4,500 of the 6,000 Palestinian prisoners and detainees held by Israel and most of the dozens of Iranian, Lebanese – mainly from Hizballah – Syrian and other Arab terrorists in jails in Europe.)
Many of them were convicted for terrorist murders against Americans and Israelis. Yet Washington, which certainly knows the details of the deal, has voiced no views on the matter – no questions asking why Iran, which has never handed over a single al Qaeda activist of the estimated 60 it is holding or protecting, should suddenly be rewarded with the recovery of terrorist hirelings who were nabbed in two decades of violence in the name of Tehran's brand of Islam.
The answer may well be that all this is happening under the aegis of a secret US-Iranian dialogue. But like all of Iran's tactics, this process too is composed of one grain of flexibility, two of belligerence in an unexpected sector.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources exclusively trace a chain of clandestine events moving forward since late December.
Towards the end of last year, Iran and the Hizballah deployed arch terrorist Imad Mugniyeh in southern Iraq to build a new network especially tailored to launch a fresh wave of terror against American and coalition forces. Towards the end of December, they hustled him out of Iraq and abandoned the network. For the moment he has gone to ground. Our sources report he did not return to Lebanon and believe he may be in Iran or the Balkans. His removal from the Iraq equation, which is almost certainly temporary, was the signal for the Hizballah-Israel prisoner swap to spring out of deadlock towards its resolution.
On Thursday, January 22, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's top aide, Dov Weisglass, conferred in Washington with US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. The official story was that they discussed restoring Israeli-Palestinian exchanges and problems arising from the security fence that Israel is building to separate itself from the West Bank.
According to our sources, the main topic of discussion between the two was in fact the prisoner swap with the Hizballah and the ramifications of the Arad conundrum.
On the quiet, the Bush administration had become so deeply involved in the deal that it moved heaven and earth in Paris to prevent the release, as part of the payment for Arad data, of one of the most dangerous terrorists ever to see the inside of a French jail, Abdallah Georges Ibrahim of the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions – FARL.
His speedy release had been urged, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources, by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in a special demarche to French president Jacques Chirac aimed at demonstrating to the Iranians that Berlin was series about the prisoner exchange.
The Americans stepped in to ask Germany and France to slow down.
Both countries agreed back in November, when the Israeli-Hezbollah swap appeared imminent, that France would release Lebanese prisoners to facilitate the deal, including even Ibrahim who was sentenced for life in 1987 for complicity in the murders of Charles Ray, US deputy military attache in Paris and the attempted murder of US consul-general Robert Homme in 1984.
In 1986, FARL carried a wave of bombings in the French capital, killing 15 people, as pressure to free Ibrahim. Last November, a court in Pau, southwest France, ruled in favor of releasing him on condition he be expelled from France. Justice Minister Dominique Perben asked prosecutors to appeal the decision, and the case went before the national parole court in Paris which overturned the ruling without publishing its reasons.
Before his French chapter, Ibrahim was not only an active member of FARL and the French terrorist Action Direct, but a leading light of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), one of the most arcane and dangerous terrorist groups ever seen in the Middle East. This group is believed to have carried out assassination missions on behalf of Syrian military intelligence as well acting as secret surrogate for Imad Mughniyeh. It was an SNNP agent who planted the bomb that destroyed the US embassy in Beirut in 1982, placing it precisely over the room in which the top CIA n
Near East echelon was holding a conference. The blast killed 29 US agents.
As the date for the exchange of prisoners drew near, the US decided to make sure that Ibrahim would stay behind bars.
The American decision, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, was partly in reaction to Iranian duplicity in Iraq, to which US intelligence had just tumbled.
Although superceded in the political arena by Iraq's home-grown Shiite clerics, Tehran had not given up promoting terror.
After spiriting Mughniyeh out of southern Iraq, the Islamic regime acted to fill the vacuum by smuggling in 2,000 Revolutionary Guards agents highly trained for paramilitary action. They were drawn from the Pasdaran's Al Quds Brigades. Some are former clerics, others posing as holy men have attached themselves to such welfare agencies as the Iranian Red Crescent and Shiite charities based in Najef.
The Americans also discovered 120 Hizballah operatives transferred from Lebanon and serving under the orders of Hassan Nasrallah as a support group for the Iranian units.
Their primary function is to recruit volunteers in southern Iraq for the “charity” organizations run by the Iranian “clerics”. In addition, in January, Iranian agents opened a clandestine pipeline to run tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites expelled by Saddam back from Iran into southern Iraq. Because these Iraqi-Iranian exiles held onto their Iraqi passports, they are able to cross back and rejoin their families unnoticed. Once home, many are recruited by Iranian intelligence for a wide range of missions.
Washington wants the new Iranian infrastructure put out of commission in southern Iraq, as it was in Afghanistan, before the Iran-Israel-Hizballah-Europe exchange goes forward. Removal of the Hizballah's Iraqi branch will also figure in US terms for proceeding both with the exchange and the dialogue with Tehran. Nasrallah, a died-in the-wool terrorist and troublemaker in Lebanon, could become a gravely destabilizing factor in Iraq. It is a little-known fact that the Hizballah leader, ostensibly a Lebanese, grew up in the Iraqi town of Najef and that is where he has his roots.