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USS Nimitz Forced Iran's Decision
Kenneth R. Timmerman
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

 WASHINGTON -- The announcement Wednesday by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his government would release the 15 captured British sailors and marines came after an intense and often bitter internal debate, sources in Tehran told NewsMax.

 The capture of the British naval inspection team was clearly a coordinated effort by the Iranian government aimed at demonstrating Iran's ability to confront the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq and to divert international attention from the nuclear showdown. The decision to release the hostages showed the limits of Iran's power and the fears of some leaders that too much provocation could backfire.

 Within four days of their capture on March 23, the 15 Britons were split up into smaller groups and held in different areas, Iranian sources told NewsMax. This was a lesson learned from the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, when all 55 U.S. hostages were initially kept in one place.

 That crisis, which occurred during the Jimmy Carter administration, prompted a U.S. attempt to rescue the hostages by force. After that attempt failed at Desert One in April 1980, the Iranians split up the U.S. hostages so it would be more difficult to rescue them.

At one point during the current hostage crisis, the British team was split up into five groups of three, with each group kept at a different military base. The Iranians would then bring several groups together and film them, to give the impression they were being held together.

 The order to capture the British sailors and marines was given by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, NewsMax sources believe.

 Khamenei's top advisers argued that by striking out against a U.S. ally in Iraq, they would be sending a message to other European nations to step back from supporting the U.S. strategy of increasing pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. They saw the move as a clear test of Western resolve.

But as Britain refused to apologize for the behavior of its boarding party, continuing to insist that they were operating in Iraqi waters – not inside Iran's territorial waters, as Tehran alleged – some of Khamenei's advisers began to have second thoughts.

 Adding to those doubts were reports that the USS Nimitz was steaming toward the Persian Gulf – making it the third Carrier Strike Group in the area.

 The Nimitz is expected to join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS John C. Stennis, both currently in the Persian Gulf, in the coming weeks.

 On Friday, March 30, Khamenei's top advisers met in an emergency session of the Supreme Council on National Security, chaired by Ali Larijani. Larijani is the regime's top nuclear negotiator, and is a confidant of the Supreme Leader, while maintaining close ties to President Ahmadinejad.

 At that meeting, Revolutionary Guards commander Maj. Gen. Rahim Safavi reported that the deployment of the Nimitz suggested that a U.S. military invasion of Iran was being prepared for early May. He urged the Council to order the release of the British hostages as a gesture to defuse the tension in the region.

 The next day, however, the head of the Political and Cultural bureau of the Revolutionary Guards, Dr. Yadollah Javani, called Safavi a "traitor" for proposing the release of the hostages.

 While this internal dispute raged, Revolutionary Guards intelligence officers in charge of guarding the hostages continued intense debriefings, aimed at eliciting "confessions" from the British captives that were aired on Iranian television.

 The intention was to build a legal "case" against the captives and haul them before a Revolutionary court. During the trial, the regime intended to use forced "confessions" from some of the hostages who alleged they had personal knowledge of British government support for Iranian separatist groups operating in Arab-dominated Khuzestan along the Iraqi border and in Sistan-Balouchestan province, next to Pakistan.

 The first inkling that the faction urging release of the hostages was winning appeared on Tuesday evening, when the influential Baztab Web site, run by former Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Mohsen Rezai, reported that the British captives would soon be released.

 "It can now be said that the politicians who are for continuing relations with London have got the upper hand," Baztab reported. Fars News Agency also reported on Tuesday that a prominent cleric, Hojatt-ol eslam Ghorbanali Najafabadi, was urging the public prosecutor not to pursue a legal case against the British sailors, but to solve the hostage crisis "through international diplomatic channels."

 For now, Tehran's leaders have backed down. Why? My bets are on the Nimitz.

 Unless Iran already has nuclear warheads, a direct military confrontation with the United States would most likely provoke a popular uprising against the regime. And retaining power is the one thing that Ayatollah Khamenei and his clerical cohorts actually care about.

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