(by Eli Lake, NYSun.com) WASHINGTON- With Iran rejecting British demands to release the 15 sailors it took hostage on March 23, a rescue operation would carry high risks and would likely require coordination on the ground, according to interviews with former special-forces and intelligence officials.
At the same time the successful rescue of the seamen could bring big rewards, including helping the embattled British premier, Tony Blair, politically and dissuading the Iranians from hostage taking in the future.
The already tense situation escalated yesterday when Iran’s government reneged on its earlier promise to release Faye Turney, the one woman among the Royal Marines abducted last week. London has insisted its seamen were seized in Iraqi territorial waters, while Mrs. Turney appeared on Iranian television reading what appeared to be a forced confession of guilt.
In Washington, American officials were emphasizing alternatives to freeing the British other than a daring commando-style raid. One such official said he foresaw a series of escalating sanctions and censure in the coming days to pressure Iran to release the hostages. These would include economic sanctions, a possible embargo, and efforts such as a blockade to prevent Iran from importing refined gasoline. While Iran is one of the world’s leading exporters of petroleum, it still lacks refining capacity to turn oil into gasoline.
Also being considered is a plan to expel known spies from Iranian embassies in Europe and other allied countries.
Former American special forces officers say, though, that it is almost certain that the British also have contingency plans for a rescue attempt that could be put into action if the allies acquire actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of the 15 sailors.
A former major in the elite Green Berets, Bob Bevelacqua, said, “The way this works, whether a bank robber with a hostage or a foreign nation that has taken our embassy, is you begin negotiations immediately in order to maneuver to take a shot. You have to assume negotiations are going to fail.”
Mr. Bevelacqua said you would need a surveillance team inside Iran to track the locations of the captives. He said such a mission would be difficult for any Western intelligence service in Iran. He also pointed out that the Iranians have improved their air defense capabilities in recent years. That could make a helicopter rescue mission much riskier even than when American special forces attempted and failed in “Desert One,” the effort to rescue the American Embassy personnel held hostage in Iran for 444 days between 1979 and 1981.
A former Marine lieutenant colonel who played a role in extraction operations in the first Gulf War from Kuwait, Bill Cowan, yesterday also said a rescue mission for the sailors would carry high risks. He predicted that in the coming days the hostages would be dispersed to different locations, making a successful rescue mission less feasible.
“They want to launch from as close to Iran as possible. Right there in Basra, the Air Force over there. They are probably in the region,” Mr. Cowan said. “Every last bit will rely on very, very specific intelligence,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that the West had “atrocious intelligence on Iran. Our best sources of information continue to be the resistance, who this administration refuses to acknowledge and garner support from.”
Both Messrs. Cowan and Bevelacqua work with a Virginia-based security consulting firm, WVC3 Group.
A former CIA operations officer who worked throughout the Middle East, Robert Baer, agreed with Mr. Cowan about the likely lack of good intelligence on the whereabouts of the British sailors.
“I do not think they will try a rescue operation simply because the intelligence is so difficult to get,” said Mr. Baer. “If the intelligence was so good they would know these 15 sailors would be grabbed. You need to have eyes on, someone you trust has eyes on the hostages. That is virtually impossible to get in Tehran now. The British embassy is isolated, I don’t think they have any contacts in the revolutionary guard and the revolutionary guard will probably disperse them. This makes a rescue almost impossible.”
Yesterday an American intelligence official who has watched Iran said that there was consensus that the decision to take the sailors was approved by the Supreme National Security Council in Tehran, a body composed of the supreme leader, president, and representatives of the guardian council, the military, the revolutionary guard and the ministry of intelligence and security. The Iranian commander who likely ordered the kidnapping, according to this source, was Brigadier General Qassem Sulamani, who heads the Quds Force. The incident caught American intelligence off guard, according to this official.
“We have been expecting the Iranians to try to nab our people. But we did not think they would go after the Brits. The British have been a weak link on the diplomacy for us, so in some ways this is not in Iran’s self interest,” this source said.
In the first week of the crisis both pillars of the Anglosphere have tried for the release of the sailors through diplomatic means. Yesterday the U.N. Security Council issued a statement calling for their release, but refused to condemn Iran for seizing the sailors in Iraqi territorial waters.
“This should have been a simple statement about a terrible situation that should have been approved in 15 minutes,” a spokesman for the American mission, Richard Grenell, said.
Another American official yesterday said that plans were underway to move rapidly to escalate economic pressure and other measures on the Iranians. “The Iranians are going to be shocked to find out how badly they have miscalculated,” this official said. “Remember, Jimmy Carter is not the president of the United States these days.”
Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.
1. What would be the benefits of a successful rescue operation of the 15 hostages?
2. a) What do the British need to know to attempt a rescue mission?
b) Why might this be a problem for them, according to various experts interviewed for this article?
3. How will the Iranians attempt to prevent a successful rescue mission by the British government, according to former Marine Bill Cowan?
4. Why didn’t American intelligence expect the Iranians to go after the British, according to an unnamed American official?
5. a) What did the United Nations Security Council refuse to do in reference to the British sailors taken hostage by Iran?
b) In your view was this an appropriate response? Explain your answer.
6. What alternatives to a rescue operation have American officials in Washington proposed?
7. What do you think the British government should do to get their sailors back:
a. use sanctions and cesure
b. attempt a rescue operation
c. apologize to the Iranians and confess to trespassing in their waters even though untrue
d. another idea
Explain your answer.
On March 23rd 15 British sailors were doing a routine inspection on board a cargo ship in Iraqi waters. Iranian military seized the soldiers, claiming that they were in Iranian waters. The one female British sailor has been forced to wear a headscarf and confess on TV that they were trespassing. The Iranian government had said it would release this female sailor, but now refuses to do so. Iran says the British government must admit that the sailors were trespassing and apologize before they consider releasing the hostages. The British government has shown proof that they were not in their waters, but Iran accuses Britain of lying. The British government will not apologize for something they did not do.
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