Why did the U.S. military choose last Friday as the date to free five Iranian "diplomats" whom the United States arrested in Irbil, Iraq in January 2007?
The U.S. military had accused the men of being members of the elite al Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards; al Quds members have armed and trained radical Shiite militias in Iraq. The Iraqi government, which has close ties to Iran, has been pressing for the release of the men since they were arrested.
But why let them go now, in Baghdad, just a day after an Iranian-American academic, Kian Tajbakhsh, was arrested in Tehran - apparently by the Revolutionary Guards? The Guards have been the military muscle used by the Iranian regime to crack down on post-election protests.
They take a hardline position on foreign policy. As I wrote in my column of July 8, the head of the al Quds force, Gen. Suleimani, sent a message to Gen. David Petraeus last year saying that the Quds force controlled Iran's foreign policy on Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. On my last trip to Iran, in summer 2006, one senior Revolutionary Guards officials told me: "You need us more than we need you."
So, was the release of the Irbil Five meant to signal the Al Quds Force and its parent body, the Rev Guards, that the Obama administration wants to deal? If that was the intent, why let them go at a time when there are no signals that the Guards are interested in compromises with the United States.
I called Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Baghdad and asked him what was going on. His reply: "there was no deal. This release has been in the populine. It was part of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) we signed with Washington (last November) that said the United States would hand over all detainees to Iraq; they were included in the handover. The Americans are done with them and it is up to the Iraqi government to decide their fate." (Iraq has already released the men to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad.)
But the SOFA, which runs until the end of 2011, did not specify when the men should be freed.
One possible explanation for the timing of the release may be this: according to U.S. defense sources, the release may be part of a complex deal to help the government of Iraq reconcile with a radical Shiite militia, named Assa'ib al Haq, that has been backed by Iran and has attacked Iraqi government personnel and foreign nationals.
Whatever the actual explanation, the timing of the release of the Erbil Five removes a bargaining chip for the freeing of American Kian Tajbakhsh. And it's unlikely to moderate the behavior of the Revolutionary Guards in the region as a whole.