On Sunday, September 19, Washington and Tehran moved fast – albeit on separate tracks – to prevent a fresh hostage crisis mushrooming between them from the tangle of inter-factional politics in Iran. Both were taken by surprise to hear that seven US soldiers had been "detained" from a report appearing that day on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) news web site – the Javan News Agency, also known as Java Online.
The story was immediately rerun by the semi-official Iranian Fars news agency, which added that the seven had been detained by Iranian border guards in the southeastern province, along with two Iranians "escorting" the troops.
Fars said the incident occurred in Sistan-Baluchestan, an impoverished province that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was no date on either report and it appeared on no other Iranian site.
The timing was suggestive.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was over the Atlantic at the time, two hours before touching down at JFK Airport in New York for the UN General Assembly. Had this report taken wing and been proven true, he would have landed in the middle of a diplomatic maelstrom and more strain with Washington, just six days after Tehran tried to smooth his way by releasing the American Sarah Shourd. She was jailed last year with two fellow hikers, her fiancé Shane Bauer and friend Joshua Fattal in the border region with Iraq.
The ultra-hardline Revolutionary Guards had used this device to put the Iranian president on notice to stand fast in the nuclear standoff with the West.
As for Washington, it was warned not to take Shourd's release as signaling safe passage henceforth for Americans in the region. On the contrary, for every American prisoner freed, more would be abducted to replace him or her and held hostage.
Abducted from Pakistan in IRGC raid
Washington's first reaction was cautious. In a brief statement, the US Defense Department said it was "aware of the news reports," but gave no further details. Several hours later, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said stiffly, "reports by state-run Iranian media that seven US soldiers were detained after crossing into Iran are absolutely false. No American soldiers are missing. All US personnel [are] accounted for."
Nonetheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Iranian sources stand by the accuracy of their report and confirm that a number of Americans – our sources put the number at five – were in fact abducted from across the border by IRGC Special Forces troops.
Because of the heavy blackout imposed by both Washington and Tehran, details of the incident are hard to come by, including the identities of the captured Americans. Our sources believe they have been in Iranian custody for nearly a week after being surprised by the IRGC gang in the rugged borderland province of Saravan which lies across the Pakistani-Iranian border of Sistan-Baluchistan. The rugged mountainous terrain there lends itself to ambushes.
According to one version, the Americans were security personnel who were gulled by the appearance of friendly tribesmen speaking the local Balochi dialect, not realizing until too late that they were Guardsmen in disguise. Before they had a chance to draw their weapons, they were dragged across the border and taken prisoner.
Tehran keeps the Pakistani and Afghan borders of this province heavily guarded and under tight surveillance to impede the infiltration of US spies and commandos. Their patrols keep track of US movements in this remote mountainous border region. At one point, they decided to use the knowledge they had gathered to capture US security personnel so as to humiliate America and generate public hostility toward a possible US military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
No US troops missing, but what about covert operatives?
In the past week, Iranian air patrols, taking off from the Birjand airfield, have intensified their patrols over the Iranian border district with Afghanistan to prevent American over-flights.
Acting Iranian Chief of Staff Gholam-Ali Rashid commented this week: "it is not overstating the fact when we say that we are on the verge of a possible future war." He was talking about the war marches played daily in the public parks of Mashad, capital of Khorassan province in north eastern Iran.
Before this incident surfaced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during a Damascus stopover to confer with Syrian president Bashar Assad, said that before considering Washington's demand to free Sarah Shourd's two companions, the US must first release eight Iranians it his holding.
He did not identify them, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports they are Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers and agents who were captured by US forces in Iraq while working with local terrorist rings.
Intelligence sources in the Persian Gulf have a different take on the abduction incident.
They point to the reference to Sistan-Baluchistan in the initial IRGC bulletin on the abduction.
While withholding precise information about where it happened, the language indicates that Iranian Guardsmen did not sneak into Afghanistan to capture the Americans but Pakistan. The Pentagon statement was also revealing: The detention of seven US soldiers crossing into Iran was explicitly denied, but there was no mention of non-military US personnel, such as security agents.
Our military sources point out that no American soldiers are present in Pakistan only CIA -Special Forces acting covertly against Taliban and al Qaeda with the consent of the Islamabad government.
The Baluchi border of Iran and Pakistan is subject to a secret war
Iran has long claimed that the CIA is training the Baluchi Jundallah and aiding its efforts to strike from bases in Pakistan against Iranian authorities in southeastern parts Iran, that is, Sistan-Baluchestan. Gulf sources therefore speculate that these covert agents may have fallen prey to the Iranian kidnap operation.
The following day, Saturday, Sept. 18, a confused report came out of Tehran about a clash between IRGC troops and Jundallah, claiming that the terrorists tried to abduct Iranian troops. When Jundallah sources said that it had kidnapped six Iranian soldiers in the Southeast, Iranian authorities in Tehran and Baluchistan countered that five soldiers were indeed abducted but later freed in an Iranian counter-attack which left one soldier and three kidnappers dead.
The Pakistani-Iranian border running through Baluchistan was shown to be highly volatile with Iranian and Jundallah forces constantly crossing back and forth for attacks. This secret war, in which US Special Forces appear to be taking part, is being fought behind a dark cloak of secrecy.
Meanwhile, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Persian Gulf intelligence sources report discreet American-Iranian contacts for the release of the American security personnel held in Iran through the same back channel used to retrieve Sarah Shourd from Iranian detention, namely, the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said.