Thursday, March 29, Tehran further fueled the suspense surrounding the capture of 15 British navy crewmen on March 23 by sending demonstrators out on the streets to demand the seizure of more hostages.
Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki went back on his earlier promise to release the only female crew member Faye Turney “shortly.”
As of now, the wilder extremist elements appear to be gaining the upper hand in the internal contest besetting the Islamic Republic’s regime over how to handle this and at least two other crises.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports from Tehran that the two opposing forces in Iran’s power structure, the hyper-radical and the pragmatic-conservative, are dueling over three bones of contention: The reaction to Britain’s vigorous response to the capture of its personnel in the Persian Gulf by Revolutionary Guards and the economic sanctions clamped down by London, with more threatened in Tony Blair’s “next phase;” the response to the mammoth US military exercise opposite Iranian shores, with its potential for morphing into an offensive operation; and, finally, the next steps in the national nuclear strategy.
Attempts to resolve the inter-factional discord at the top of Iran’s hierarchy were staged at four meetings, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports have been held in the week since the seizure of the British personnel on the divided Shat al Arb waterway:
The first was held on the day of the incident by senior Revolutionary Guards commanders and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behind closed doors. The points they made are summarized here:
1. It is important to humiliate Britain in order to teach the American public that “blonde, blue-eyed soldiers are easy meat for Iranian birds of prey.”
2. Humiliating the captives will turn public opinion in Britain too against the war in Iraq and boost the UK opposition to an American military strike against Iran.
3. The UK will not dare launch a military operation against Iran on its own and it has no chance of enlisting American or European support. The Europeans have no desire to engage Iran in war and the Americans are not ready.
Catch the Americans before they are ready for war
4. Some of the RG officers took the opposite view. They rated Washington’s decision to go to war next autumn as final and argued that bringing the showdown forward to the present would give Iran the advantage.
5. America’s treatment of Saddam Hussein proves that even after a regime bows to its demands and meets all its wishes, Washington never goes back on a decision for change. Therefore, there is no way of avoiding a military confrontation between the US and Iran – and the sooner the better, so as to catch the Americans before their war preparations are completed.
The second high-level meeting in Tehran was much broader that the first: It was convened by the supreme national security council and attended by Ahmadinejad, ex-president Hashem Rafsanjani who is the supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s senior adviser, all the armed forces chiefs, and foreign minister Mottaki Manchour.
It was generally agreed that the seizure of the British personnel served Iran’s interests, but could turn counter-productive if it stretched out too long. The captives must be returned before the crisis weighs too heavily on Iran’s economy and advances the threat of war.
This reading of the situation was vociferously challenged by the president. He said there is no hurry to release the British servicemen; Iran must hold onto them as a lever to show up the helplessness of the British and the entire West to face up to Muslims willing to stand up and fight. They should also be used as hostages to fend off UN sanctions. In other words, Ahmadinejad wanted the captives held to ransom for the suspension of sanctions.
The third meeting took place on Monday, March 26, at the Council for Assessing the Regime’s Interests, a body headed by Rafsanjani, which monitors the functioning of government, constitution and judiciary.
Rafsanjani’s report on the proceedings including recommendations was later submitted to the Supreme Ruler.
Rafsanjani wants to cool it
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran sources, Rafsanjani’s report essentially predicted a grim period in store for the Islamic Republic in the coming months.
Here are some other highlights of his report:
1. If the current crises persist, Iran’s position will grow weaker and the next UN Security Council session due in May, when the 60-day ultimatum for halting nuclear enrichment expires, is likely to clamp down harsher sanctions than ever before.
2. The seizure of British servicemen will enrage British and American public and generate in those countries a groundswell urging both governments to go to war against Iran.
3. All the participants agreed with the armed forces chiefs that a US military strike against Iran was a certainty. However, reactions were divided. The more pragmatic followers of Rafsanjani recommended that Tehran act fast to cool the fraught atmosphere and meanwhile enlist international opinion against American belligerence.
He supported his case with the following arguments:
- The United States has since World War II invaded seven countries, inveighing systematically against their regimes in a well-orchestrated media campaign that prepared the ground for each operation. Such a campaign is now peaking against Iran.
- The Bush administration’s sanctions drive against Iran is a success; even India and South Africa, though traditionally close to Tehran, unexpectedly endorsed UN Security Council resolution 1737; the Europeans have gone further and are cooperating with Washington’s freeze on banking and financial transactions with Iran.
- International support for Tehran is ebbing fast. Whereas the Bush administration worked for eight months to put the first sanctions resolution through the world body, only two months were needed for the second, and the third is much closer. Washington’s success in enlisting world opinion against Iran may quickly snowball. Even those two former mainstays, Russia and China, can no longer be trusted. Russia is holding up the completion of the Bushehr atomic reactor and withholding fuel, while China raised its hand in favor of the pro-US sanctions resolution.
- The Arab League summit in Riyadh this week could have lined up against a US attack on Iran – but didn’t.
Khameni keeps his council
Rafsanjani points out to supreme ruler Khamenei that it is essential for the Iranian leadership to conduct an urgent, in-depth review of the damage accruing from its stubborn adherence to the production of enriched uranium. Before drawing up a proper profit and loss balance sheet, the Islamic Republic must beware of any further military adventures that could weaken its international position.
The former president points the finger of blame at President Ahmadinejad, accusing him of rash and vengeful actions, which serve only to deepen divisions within the Iranian leadership while heaping opprobrium on figures who have faithfully served the Islamic revolution for many years.
The day after this report landed on his desk, Ayatollah Khamenei convened the fourth meeting at his office. It was attended by the two bitter enemies, Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, foreign minister Mottaki and Revolutionary Guards commanders, who gave an account of their operation to seize the 15 British sailors and marines.
The meeting was stormy: Rafsanjani said the operation was a serious blunder and demanded that the captives be released forthwith.
RGs chief Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, backed up by Ahmadinejad, violently opposed the British crews’ release.. Safavi delivered a peroration on the “huge sacrifices made by the Revolutionary Guards to defend Islamic values.”
It was obvious that he had no intention of letting his British prisoners go any time soon.
The meeting ended without any decisions. The Supreme Ruler kept his council.