By George Friedman and Kamran Bokhari
Iraqi officials said Tuesday that gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms kidnapped an Iranian Embassy official in central Baghdad on Sunday. Jalal Sharafi, a second secretary at the Iranian Embassy, was abducted from the Karrada district while on his way to a ribbon cutting at a new branch of an Iranian state bank.
According to witnesses and unnamed Iraqi officials, gunmen wearing uniforms of the Iraqi army's elite 36th Commando Battalion -- part of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces Brigade, an aggressive unit that specializes in counterinsurgent operations -- were involved in the snatch. They reportedly used two of their vehicles to block Sharafi's car and then seized him. During the ambush, nearby Iraqi police -- apparently suspecting a kidnapping was taking place -- opened fire on one of the vehicles and brought it to a halt. The four gunmen inside -- all with official Iraqi military identification -- were arrested.
The story did not end there, however. On Monday, individuals showing official Iraqi government badges arrived at the police station where the gunmen were being detained and claimed to have authority to transfer them to the serious crimes police unit. It was later discovered that the suspects never arrived.
Iran has accused the United States of engineering the abduction through the Sunni-controlled Defense Ministry; the U.S. military has denied any involvement in the matter.
Given the tactical details of the operation and the geopolitical backdrop, there are two possible explanations for the incident. One is that Sunni insurgents are responsible: They have the means and motivation to pull off such an operation, and any number of Sunni factions would be interested in carrying out an abduction like this. But the United States has a motive as well.
It is important to note that Sharafi's position at the embassy is the kind of diplomatic posting that frequently would be a cover for intelligence operatives. So if he were an Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security operative of some importance, kidnapping him would disrupt Iranian operations as the U.S. security offensive in Baghdad gets under way. Second, the United States has been very public in saying it intends to become more aggressive toward Iranian covert operations as part of its effort to bring pressure against Tehran. U.S. intelligence has substantially ramped up the collection of information on Iran -- a move that would serve whether the goal was to actually attack Iran, plan negotiations or just try to figure out the mind of Tehran. The snatch of a second secretary would fit into this effort.
This is not the first incident of this kind. In January, U.S. forces arrested five officials from an Iranian diplomatic office in Arbil, a northern city, and have been holding them ever since -- a maneuver that fits with the Bush administration's strategy of demonstrating that Washington has the ability to weaken the Iranian position in Iraq. In an act of apparent retaliation, Shiite militants attacked the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in the southern city of Karbala on Jan. 20, and after a 20-minute gunbattle, abducted five U.S. soldiers, who later were killed. The operatives spoke English, had U.S. military uniforms and identification cards and arrived in armored white GMC suburbans. Using their English-language skills, the gunmen were able to arm themselves at a local police station and then penetrate multiple layers of security before opening fire on a U.S. civil affairs team.
At this point, this much is clear: No matter who is actually responsible for the Sharafi abduction, it will further heighten U.S.-Iranian tensions and could force Tehran to retaliate against the pressure being generated by the United States. The Iranians will blame the Americans under any circumstances. In the logic of the region, the Iranians will reason that even if the perpetrators were Sunnis, the United States somehow manipulated them into carrying out the operation. The Iranians are now as fixated on U.S. covert operations against Iran as the United States has become on Iranian covert operations in Iraq and elsewhere against U.S. interests.
Whatever the facts of this particular case might be, the United States has been transmitting numerous signals -- official and otherwise -- that Iran is vulnerable and is placing itself at risk by opposing U.S. interests in Iraq. The Sharafi abduction seems designed to enhance Tehran's sense of vulnerability, and hence to fuel disagreements among those in Iran who feel the United States is at a weak point and those who warn that the United States is most dangerous at its weakest. The debate between these camps is about how to deal with the United States: whether to retaliate against provocations, pursue negotiations or a mix of both. This is precisely the kind of re-evaluation of its stance and options that the United States wants to see from Iran. The Americans want the Iranians to view the United States as a dangerous foe, and to moderate their appetite for power in the region. Therefore, even if the United States didn't order the Sharafi operation, it still fits into a pattern of warnings that the Americans have been issuing.
There are some factors that allow us to speculate -- and this remains speculation -- that U.S. forces working with partners within the Iraqi Defense Ministry engineered the kidnapping. More specifically, the 36th Commando Battalion, whose uniforms were worn by the gunmen in the course of the kidnapping, is known to work closely with U.S. forces. Amid efforts to quell the Sunni insurgency and contain the growth of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States in 2005 began moving to bring the Baathists back into Iraq's political system, especially the security forces. This policy has been central to the tensions between the Americans and Iraqi Shia, but it is a tool the Bush administration is using to counter Iranian moves.
Another point to consider is that Sharafi -- as an official with diplomatic immunity -- could not be held in detention for long under normal measures. The standard procedure for dealing with foreign diplomats who are deemed undesirable is to declare them persona non grata and order them out of the country within a matter of days. This is the course of action generally pursued if the goal is to rid a country of potential intelligence operatives -- and it is a sign of escalating tension between the diplomat's home state and the host country. In Sharafi's case, expulsion would have been the prerogative of the Iraqi government. But since the Shiite-dominated government has close ties to Iran, it is hardly likely that he would have been expelled.
In this case, the objective of the United States would not be simply to secure the Iranian's expulsion, but given his position, to extract intelligence about Tehran's plans and operational networks in Iraq. Arresting him and holding him for questioning would not be possible under international law, let alone in the face of the scandal that would ensue if U.S. forces had done this. Nevertheless, an opportunity to question him would be of real value to the United States. Maintaining plausible deniability would be the key. But arranging for Sharafi's abduction by a third party would be a feasible way of obtaining the intelligence sought by the United States. It is therefore quite possible that this was a U.S.-authorized operation executed by Washington's Sunni allies.
The Sunnis in Iraq -- both the nationalists and the jihadists -- have reasons of their own to abduct an Iranian official, and hence could have seized Sharafi as part of a completely independent operation. Sunni nationalists and jihadists feel that they are more threatened by Iranian influence in Iraq than by the U.S. military presence, which most believe eventually will come to an end. The Iranian-Shiite threat, however, is a permanent feature of the region and poses long-term danger.
The Sunnis also recognize that they do not have the means to deal with Iran or its Iraqi Shiite allies by themselves -- but the United States has the power to weaken the position of Iran, and by extension, its Iraqi patrons. With tensions between Washington and Tehran at their current heights, there is an opportunity to be exploited.
The Sunnis could exacerbate those tensions further by abducting an Iranian diplomat at a time when the United States already has five Iranian officials in custody. No claims of responsibility for the operation were issued, which means Tehran's suspicions of the Americans easily could be fueled.
The timing is interesting in another way as well. In efforts to maximize its position in Iraq, Tehran has been angling for negotiations with Saudi Arabia -- and this leaves Iraqi Sunnis feeling nervous. As a minority group that occupies a region without oil, the Sunnis would be at an inherent disadvantage: No matter what kind of support Riyadh might offer them, they would find it difficult or impossible to escape the pull of Iranian and Shiite power. Neither the nationalist insurgents nor the jihadists could accept such an outcome.
On the day of Sharafi's abduction, the al Qaeda-led alliance called the "Islamic State of Iraq" issued a statement saying U.S. military action against Iran would benefit Islamist militants. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the abduction was an attempt to provoke Iran -- which already is demanding the release of the officials captured in Arbil -- into retaliation against the Americans. The jihadists' hope would be that this could provoke a wider U.S.-Iranian conflict and hence torpedo any U.S.-Iranian dealings.
The Iranians seem sincere in their conviction that the abduction was the work of the United States. Their likely reaction would be to encourage their allies within the Iraqi Shiite militias to strike at both U.S. and Sunni targets -- reminding Washington that Tehran is not without options -- while at the same time pressing ahead on the diplomatic front. In other words, the likely short-term outcome of this incident will be increased violence.
At the same time, the United States is engaged in a long-term process designed to convince the Iranians that the risks incurred in destabilizing Iraq and blocking a political settlement in Baghdad are greater than they might have imagined, and that the U.S. resolve to resist Iran is sufficient to block Tehran's ambitions. From Washington's point of view, the primary hope for any satisfactory end to the Iraq war rests in a change of policy in Tehran. Regardless of whether this abduction triggers retaliation, if Iran comes to believe that Washington is dangerous, it might come to the bargaining table or -- to be more precise -- allow its Iraqi allies to come to the table.
An action like the Sharafi abduction allows the signal to be sent, while still falling short of mounting overt military strikes against Iran -- something for which the United States currently has little appetite or resources. A covert war is within the means of the United States, and the Americans might hope that their prosecution of that war will convince Iran they are serious and to back off. Therefore, even if the kidnapping had nothing to do with the United States and Iran misreads the incident, it still could serve American interests in signaling American resolve. Given the state of the U.S. position in Iraq, the strategy well might fail -- but once again, it is one of the few cards the United States has left to play.
(Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report)