by Eric Martin
Was he an Iranian arms smuggler or did he restore religious sites? Was that white powder he had on him cocaine or salt? Who arrested him, and why was he freed?
Those questions surround the detention of an Iranian man, Nader Qorbani, accused by U.S. officials of being a senior officer of Iran's Quds Force paramilitary unit but who was quietly released Friday after three days in custody.
Whatever the reality, the quick release of a man whom the United States had described as a major catch suggests the ability of Iran to push buttons here, just as the U.S. prepares to diminish its role.
Qorbani was detained at the Baghdad airport, but various U.S. and Iraqi officials have given different accounts of whether it was U.S., Iraqi or private security forces that took him into custody. U.S. officials have said he was handed over to the Iraqi government, which said he was freed Friday.
On Monday, the hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan said Iranian intervention was responsible for Qorbani being freed. It said Qorbani was an innocent contractor responsible for the "repairing and maintaining of the holy sites in Iraq," Iran's neighbor.
U.S. military officials, who heralded Qorbani's Nov. 18 capture with a press release headlined, "Forces detain Iranian involved in lethal aid shipments," said his job was a cover for smuggling weapons into Iraq in boxes of building materials. It said Qorbani was carrying cocaine and was attempting to leave Iraq when he was arrested at the airport.
This episode is but one small indicator of how misguided it was/is to cast Moqtada al-Sadr as an Iranian cat's paw, despite the Sadrist trend's historical nationalism (and, at times, anti-Persian rhetoric), all the while ignoring the long and deep historical Iranian ties (and roots!) of the parties that we helped greatly in their conflict with Sadr (ISCI and Dawa).
Put simply: The SOFA is not a defeat for Iran, it has Iran's blessing in that it establishes a firm timetable for the removal of all US troops, and expressly forbids the use of Iraqi soil to launch attacks on Iran. Would they have preferred a shorter timetable? Perhaps, but the difference between 16 months and 36 months isn't really that big a deal in the grand scheme of things - at least from Iran's perspective.
Similarly, the weakening of Sadr did not deal a blow to Iran. In fact, Iran itself helped to diminish Sadr(by infiltrating and dividing his militia) out of a preference for their two more natural allies (ISCI and Dawa). Sadr was, and to some extent is, useful to Iran in a limited sense (in that his movement offers a means of striking at US forces). But Sadr himself, and the movement he represents, are far less amenable to Iranian objectives than ISCI and Dawa tend to be. Partially as a result of this divergence, the Sadrists are in direct competition with ISCI and Dawa for political power, and so Iran's swing to ISCI and Dawa was only a matter of time.
That the Bush administration has decided on ISCI and Dawa as its preferred allies as well is but the frosting on the cake that we baked for Iran. That reality is too embarrassing for the Bush administration and its supporters to admit, however, and so we pretend that Iran has suffered a series of setbacks since we invaded. We really showed em didn't we!
Alas, reality has its own agenda, and it is far less concerned with the bruised egos of Bush administration policymakers. We ignore it at our peril.