Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Breather For Now - Apr 4

It appears that the mini-crisis over the Iranian capture of those British sailors is finished. Naturally this is good news, especially for the families of the sailors. However, we should carefully mute any kind of celebration. Here's my humble opinion of what happened here:

1) The targets were going to be British from the get-go. Any attempt to capture American personnel would have had immediate and unfortunate consequences. The Iranians basically wanted to give us the middle finger, not spit directly in our face.

2) There is no doubt of Russian involvement in this. These military actions would never have gone ahead without explicit Russian approval, up to and including Vladimir Putin.

3) This was not a spur of the moment! I think people in the West seriously underestimate Iranian craftiness and resourcefulness. The Iranian leadership had this planned out. They knew who was to be captured, when and where that capture was to take place (though there had to be an opportune time to present itself before they could act), how the captives were to be treated (rather well in this case), where they were going to be held and the approximate time frame before they were to be released. In other words, it was a calculated manouevre from beginning to end.

4) This is not over. Not even by a long shot.

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Johnny Cash

The British Detainees: Why a Rescue Attempt was Never in the Cards
By Fred Burton

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said April 4 that the 15 British sailors and marines captured March 23 in the area around the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway would be released. Although it is unclear at this point just what deal was made to secure their freedom, it is apparent that Iran instigated the drama for much the same reason it held 52 American hostages for 444 days following the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by radical students in 1979. Both events were meant to demonstrate the power of Iran's hard-liners, not only to the Iranian public but also to the West and the rest of the world.

As the stalemate between the British and the Iranians dragged on for nearly two weeks, many Stratfor readers wrote in to suggest that a rescue operation should be undertaken. In this case, however, seeking a diplomatic solution was always the most logical approach.

Although the rescue operation authorized by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979 ended badly for the United States, the British Special Air Service (SAS) and its U.S. counterparts are far better prepared than they were back then -- and they could have avoided most of the mistakes made during "Desert One." That said, however, the Iranians are experts at hiding hostages for long periods, and there certainly was no guarantee that a rescue attempt would have succeeded. Therefore, it was indeed just speculation that one would have been attempted.

The SAS and American operators have conducted hundreds of successful missions in the region, both during the 1991 Gulf War and following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. They are better equipped than ever before and, with their skills honed to a razor's edge by repeated combat deployments and many successful missions, they perhaps are at their highest level of proficiency.

However, this was not the Iranians' first rodeo when it comes to holding captives, and they undoubtedly would have taken measures to thwart any rescue attempt. While some of these measures would have been military, the most important ones would have been in the realm of intelligence. The Iranians understand that intelligence drives any rescue mission and that by denying the British the required intelligence, they could prevent a rescue attempt from ever getting off the ground.

Naturally, the British (and the Americans) will have focused a tremendous amount of effort and resources on determining where the British personnel were being held. While this case is reminiscent of the 1979 crisis in some ways, when it comes to thwarting intensive intelligence efforts to locate a small group of detainees, it is perhaps more relevant to look back to the Lebanon hostage-taking crisis of the 1980s. During that period, the Iran-guided Hezbollah operation thwarted intensive U.S. efforts to collect the tactical intelligence required to mount a rescue attempt for nearly a decade.

Ali the Iranian

Hezbollah is intimately connected to Iran. The organization was created by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the 1980s as a vehicle to export the ideals of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's Islamic Revolution to Lebanon's Shiite community. Since then, Iran has been Hezbollah's chief source of funding and weapons, and the Iranians also provide extensive training in weapons, tactics, communications, surveillance, intelligence and other methods to Hezbollah's militant wing in Lebanon.

Because of this relationship, the Iranians were intimately involved in Hezbollah's operations to abduct Western hostages in Lebanon -- and to hold them for prolonged periods of time. In fact, some of the hostages were even held at locations clearly associated with Iran's IRGC, such as the Sheikh Abdullah Barracks in Baalbek, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

This linkage to Iran was clearly displayed in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which sales and transfers of arms to Iran led to the release of hostages, including Benjamin Weir in 1985 and David Jacobson and Father Lawrence Jenco in 1986. However, this Iranian involvement in the keeping of Western hostages in Lebanon was perhaps best personified by a Persian who came to be known as "Ali the Iranian".

During the debriefings of the Western hostages held in Lebanon, it was learned that many of the hostages had seen the same short, chubby bearded chap -- a man the debriefers nicknamed "Ali the Iranian." The uncanny similarity between the sketches made of this man during the debriefing process, as he was described by hostages held at different times and in different locations, demonstrated Ali's prolonged involvement in the episode.

When Ali would come to visit the locations where the hostages were being held, he was treated with great reverence and respect by the guards, and a few of the hostages even characterized his visits as "inspections." Also, due to the timing of his visits, it is believed that Ali was involved in overseeing prisoner movement, monitoring their treatment and approving the sites where they were held.

Because of his function, the U.S. interagency task force assigned to locate the hostages (part of which involved debriefing former hostages) came to the conclusion that Ali was an Iranian intelligence officer who worked very closely with Imad Fayez Mugniyah, the man responsible for Hezbollah's intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Mugniyah is believed to have directed the kidnappings of the Westerners in Lebanon and to have been involved in the efforts to guard them and to thwart any U.S. rescue efforts.

Tactical Lessons from Lebanon

From the debriefings of the Western hostages in Beirut, much was learned about the tactics used by Mugniyah and Hezbollah to keep U.S. intelligence off balance during the decade-long hostage crisis.

First, Hezbollah did not keep all of its eggs in one basket -- it kept the hostages split up. While some were kept in groups, they were never all held together in the same location. The high-value targets, such as CIA station chief William Buckley and Marine Col. William Higgins, were held and interrogated separately. Buckley was moved to the same location as one of the small groups shortly before his death, but he was gravely ill at the time of his transfer and had clearly been severely tortured and badly abused during his solitary captivity.

The hostages also were kept in a number of different environments, including the basement of a military barracks, a secret compartment under a barn and an apartment in a high-rise building in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Sometimes the hostages were kept in absolute darkness, while at other times they were kept in a more congenial atmosphere where they were given light and reading material. Regardless of the conditions, however, the hostages were well-secured and carefully watched by guards armed with assault rifles and pistols. At times, the hostages were chained to the radiator in a room in an apartment building, and at other times they were locked in cells that measured just 16 square feet and were 4 feet high (which was particularly tough for 6'7" Briton Terry Waite). While captives Charlie Glass and Jerry Levin successfully escaped, other escape attempts were foiled and resulted in merciless beatings.

The hostages were almost always held in an area surrounded by Hezbollah sympathizers -- people who could warn of surveillance by Western intelligence, provide early warning on preparation for rescue attempts and help deter escape attempts and recapture escaped hostages.

Hezbollah also moved the hostages around, especially following the release of a hostage or another event that could serve to compromise their location. The hostages were nearly always moved under cover of darkness, and they frequently were bundled like mummies and wrapped in cloth or tape. This not only made escape difficult, but would also make it impossible for any accidental bystander to identify them. At times, the bundled hostages would be moved in the trunk of a car, or even hidden in trucks with secret compartments (presumably used at other times for smuggling arms and other illicit goods).

These measures (along with the U.S. government's paucity of human sources in Lebanon and over-reliance on signals intelligence) meant that the United States could never gather hard intelligence on the locations of all the hostages at any one time. Without the ability to get U.S. "eyes on" the different detention sites simultaneously, no U.S. rescue mission could be launched. U.S. eyes were needed for verification because the United States could not run the risk of being lured into a trap by bad intelligence -- a trap in which American service personnel could be killed or captured and the disaster made even worse.

Tactical Reality Today

One stark difference between the situations in Lebanon in the past and in Iran today is that the conditions and circumstances under which the Britons are being held is different. The British detainees are being held by an acknowledged government, not a nonstate actor like Hezbollah. Certainly, the captors moved the detainees to various locations, keeping security around them tight and compelling them to make statements to the media. The detainees, however, were not tortured or otherwise intentionally traumatized. Iran could not have afforded for its former captives to tell stories to the media about being chained to radiators and kept in tiger cages. It also could not have them relate stories about being wrapped as mummies and shoved in false compartments of trucks. Also, there was never any indication that the Iranians meant for this captivity to last for months or years.

That said, while many of the specific tactics used by Iran's proteges in Lebanon could not be used during the most recent situation, many of the broad principles could have applied, and these principles would have assisted the Iranians in keeping British intelligence efforts off balance -- should they have chosen to prolong this drama.

Iran is far larger than Lebanon, and Tehran is several times farther from the sea than any point in Lebanon. As witnessed during Desert One in 1979, even getting a rescue team to Tehran can be difficult. The terrain, however, was just one of the obstacles. The IRGC, which captured the British personnel, is far larger and better-equipped than Hezbollah -- not to mention the rest of the Iranian military, police and the MOIS -- and the Iranians are far better trained, equipped and organized than they were in 1979 or Hezbollah was in the 1980s.

Based on these considerations, the conditions under which the detainees have been kept, the risk associated with a rescue operation and the difficulty in collecting the intelligence necessary to launch a rescue attempt in the first place -- a diplomatic, negotiated settlement to the case was always in the cards.

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