IRAN: In false report of captured American soldiers, a warning to Ahmadinejad?
A war of words over Iran's nuclear program has raised tensions in the Middle East between Tehran and its allies and the West and its partners. For years analysts have been worrying about a misunderstanding or mishap involving Iranian and U.S. warships in the waters of the Persian Gulf or a confrontation between American soldiers and Iranians along borders in Iraq or Afghanistan.
So when the website of an Iranian newspaper (Persian link) said to be linked to the intelligence branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard reported on Sunday that Iran had captured seven American soldiers along its eastern border with Pakistan, everyone stopped in their tracks, remembering the crisis that ensued more than three years ago with the capture of British sailors in the gulf.
"It has been heard that about seven American forces accompanied by two Iranians who wanted to enter the Iranian territories from the Kuhak border in Saravan region [Sistan-Baluchestan province] have been identified and arrested by the vigilant border guards," the report on the news website Javan Online said. "It is said that two Iranians who accompanied the American forces could escape."
Within minutes the news had been picked up by Iranian and international news organizations, and within hours Javan took down the report and issued a retraction and an apology (Persian link) to readers.
Iran watchers suspect hard-line elements within the Revolutionary Guard may have been trying to further damage an already battered and politically weakened President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his ongoing trip to New York, where he is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly and give a bunch of interviews to international media, as he does to improve his domestic and international standing every year.
"The system's enemies and ill-wishers are trying to create an adverse atmosphere against the president and to overshadow his speech at the United Nations," Sistan-Baluchestan Governor-General Ali Mohammad Azad, an appointee of Ahmadinejad, told the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
But the publication of the report may also have served as a menacing reminder to Ahmadinejad of how boxed in he is on foreign policy.
Perhaps those powerful figures hiding in the shadows of the security apparatus want to remind Ahmadinejad that any deal he tries to cut over Iran's nuclear program, any attempt he makes to improve ties or even reduce tensions with the U.S., and any gambit he makes to soften Iran's image can be easily undermined with one grand stunt, such as capturing a platoon of U.S. soldiers along the Iranian border.
-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut
Photo: Royal Navy sailor Nathan Summers, left foreground, spoke with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the light-colored jacket, in Tehran on April 4, 2007, when a group of British sailors and Marines were released after a 15-day imprisonment. Credit: Associated Press