WASHINGTON American and Iraqi officials are working out a plan to allow Iranian diplomats access to five Iranians captured in Iraq in January by American forces as a possible prelude to their release.
The plan dovetails with Secretary of State Rice's announcement that she would be open to direct talks with the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, this month at a scheduled meeting in Baghdad of officials from Iraq and neighboring countries. It also follows the release of 15 British sailors captured by Iran last month, an arrangement both America and Britain have insisted did not yield concessions from the West.
Despite their assurances, contradictory details are emerging. Yesterday, a spokesman for the National Security Council, Gordon Johndroe, told reporters that America is negotiating a process with the Iraqi government that could lead to the release of the five Iranians, captured in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil by American forces on the morning of January 11, hours after President Bush announced a new Iraq strategy to combat the Iranian and Syrian networks in Iraq.
"Well, that's an ongoing process," Mr. Johndroe said. "We're going to work that with the Iraqis to see what the next steps are, determining what course of justice should be carried out to deal with to deal with, frankly, what we believe were activities harmful to innocent Iraqis, as well as coalition forces."
Also, as The New York Sun reported yesterday, the White House took part in the decision this week to release the second secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, Jalal Sharafi, who was being held in an Iraqi- and American-administered facility. Mr. Sharafi arrived in Iran on Tuesday, the day before President Ahmadinejad said he would release the 15 British sailors.
Mr. Johndroe's announcement marks a change of course from earlier statements made by Mr. Bush and Secretary of Defense Gates about the captured Iranians. Mr. Gates said yesterday, "I think there's no inclination right now to let them go." But he also said the plan for granting access to the prisoners was being negotiated.
"It's my understanding that the consular access is not required, but also that the Iraqi government officials and U.S. officials are discussing if there's some way perhaps that there could be some kind of Iranian access to them," he said.
On March 27, the senior State Department adviser for Iraq, David Satterfield, said that no discussions were under way to release the captured Iranians. "That issue is not even under consideration," he said.
The release of the Irbil five has been a high priority for the Iranians since the men were captured. Indeed, at the plenary meeting for this month's foreign minister-level conference in Baghdad, the deputy Iranian foreign minister accused America of having hundreds of Iranian nationals in its custody.
American military and intelligence officials have confirmed this figure to the Sun, noting that the Iranians in American custody are partly a result of a change in the rules of engagement and a new Iraq strategy.
The Irbil five, however, are also of high value to the American military, whose commanders in Iraq have opposed efforts to hand over the men, who they say are high-ranking members of Iran's Quds Force, to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
One concern about releasing the five Iranians or transferring them to Iraqi custody, according to one administration official, is that they are knowledgeable about American interrogation techniques. "They will share this knowledge with the next batch of Quds officers that come to Iraq," the official, who requested anonymity, said.
Another concern is that the five Iranians in American custody are particularly dangerous. The administration official described them as "paymasters" and "terrorism coaches."