Nowhere on the TeeVee news have I heard that the British hostages taken by Iran were taken not by the Iranian Navy, but by the Revolutionary Guard. From David Ignatius at WaPo, via Kevin Drum:
We are in a season of skulduggery in the Middle East, with a strange series of events that all involve the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The murky saga is a reminder that the real power in Iran may lie with this secretive organization, which spawned Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Revolutionary Guard orchestrated the seizure of 15 British sailors and marines last week near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. The British say they have technical data to prove that their people were outside Iran's territorial waters when they were captured, and they have protested vigorously to Iranian diplomats. But the Iranian Foreign Ministry doesn't seem to know anything about the case. Indeed, it may have been one of the indirect targets.
The Revolutionary Guard seized the hostages, if that's the right word, at a time when it is under intense and growing pressure. U.S. troops captured five of its intelligence operatives in January in the Iraqi city of Irbil. Perhaps the Guard's commanders wanted some bargaining chips to get their people back.
This is fascinating stuff. From wikipedia:
Army of the Guardians of Islamic Revolution (Persian: سپاه پاسداران انقلاب اسلامی - Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami), also known as Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Revolutionary Guards, Sepah (army), or Pasdaran (guardians), is the largest military army of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The IRGC is separate from, and parallel to, the Islamic Republic of Iran Army. They are equipped with their own navy, air force, intelligence, ground troops and special forces.
The force's main role is in national security, responsible for internal and border security, as well as law enforcement. It is also responsible for Iran's missile forces. The operations of the Sepah-e Pasdaran are geared towards asymmetric warfare and less traditional duties. These include the control of smuggling, control of the Strait of Hormoz, and resistance operations.
"Separate from, and parallel to...". What does this mean? To continue:
The IRGC was formed in May, 1979, as a force loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but later became a full military force alongside the army in the Iran-Iraq War. It was infamous for its human wave attacks such as during Operation Ramadan, an assault on the city of Basra.
The present Chief Commander of the IRGC is Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi who was preceded by Mohsen Rezaee. Iran's current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a member of the IRGC during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
So does this mean that Ahmadinejad has a private army? Clearly there are factions and sides working at cross-purposes in Iran.
The Revolutionary Guard may also have hoped to sabotage diplomatic negotiations over the nuclear issue. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said several weeks ago that the United States was getting "pinged all over the world" by Iranian intermediaries who wanted a resumption of talks. Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, hinted at such a message in his recent contacts with the European Union's top diplomat, Javier Solana. But the prospect of nuclear talks may have been blown out of the water, as it were, until the British issue is resolved.
Maybe that was the goal of seizing the sailors and marines. The Revolutionary Guard, after all, can't be happy about curbing the nuclear program that would allow it to project power even more aggressively.
Or does the Revolutionary Guard give Ahmadinejad leverage against the real Iranian Army, controlled by the Ayatollahs? Why else a parallel military? From The National Review (yeah, I know):
Ahmadinejad revels in his alliance with the Basiji. He regularly appears in public wearing a black-and-white Basij scarf, and, in his speeches, he routinely praises "Basij culture" and "Basij power," with which he says "Iran today makes its presence felt on the international and diplomatic stage." Ahmadinejad's ascendance on the shoulders of the Basiji means that the Iranian Revolution, launched almost three decades ago, has entered a new and disturbing phase. A younger generation of Iranians, whose worldviews were forged in the atrocities of the Iran-Iraq War, have come to power, wielding a more fervently ideological approach to politics than their predecessors. The children of the Revolution are now its leaders.
Read the rest of Ignatius' piece. It rivals John LeCarre's best writing in suspense and intrigue.