Big news if true. The report comes from Asharq al-Awsat, which you’ll recall had scoop after scoop about the Iranian general who disappeared last month. The jury’s still out on that story, though, so take their credibility here with a grain of salt. With thanks to John of Verum Serum for the tip:

The sailors, taken at gunpoint Friday by Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Al Quds soldiers were captured intentionally and are to be used as bargaining chips to be used for the release of five Iranians who were arrested at the Iranian consul in Irbil, Iraq by US troops, an Iranian official told the daily paper Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday.

In addition, a senior Iranian military official said Saturday that the decision to capture the soldiers was made during a March 18 emergency meeting of the High Council for Security following a report by the Al-Quds contingent commander, Kassem Suleimani, to the Iranian chief of the armed forces, Maj.Gen. Hassan Firouz Abadi. In the report, according to Asharq al-Awsat, Suleimani warned Abadi that Al Quds and Revolutionary Guards’ operations had become transparent to US and British intelligence following the arrest of a senior Al Quds officer and four of his deputies in Irbil.

According to the official, Iran was worried that its detained people would leak sensitive intelligence information.

The fears about transparency are plausible: just yesterday I mentioned that attacks involving EFPs (which the Quds Force is suspected of supplying to Shiite militias) are way down over the past few months, and on Thursday came the bombshell about the roll-up of that “rogue” Mahdi Army network that’s allegedly on Iran’s payroll and connected to EFP trafficking. The same network is suspected of having carried out the Karbala raid on U.S. troops in late January, which may have been Iran’s first attempt to retaliate for our Irbil operation. If these “rogue” JAM guys (who probably aren’t rogue) are as deeply involved with Iran as the news stories have alleged, then yeah, no surprise that the mullahs would be alarmed by news of their detainment. The problem is, the timing’s a little off. The first arrests of the Mahdi Army network supposedly happened on Monday, March 19, a day after the emergency meeting described here. Maybe the reports about the dates are slightly off? Or maybe Iran got tipped off the day before the arrests that they were coming? Or maybe this is all garbage? I rehash, you decide! Although it’s worth noting as we go forward that there were rumors of an Iranian plan to kidnap western personnel earlier this week — on March 18, in fact, the very same day the emergency meeting supposedly went down. Eeeenteresting.

Assuming it has nothing to do with revenge for Irbil, then what’s it all about, Alfie? JPost again:

Meanwhile, officials from Western countries expressed concern Saturday that Iran would engage in similar acts in the future in order to discourage the United Nation’s Security Council from imposing further sanctions, reported Army Radio.

Debka’s hearing the same and says there’s more on the way:

Our military sources report that Middle East and Persian Gulf nations as well as the US and UK are bracing for further Iranian marine, air or terrorist operations in Iraq and other places in reprisal for the sanctions measure before the UN Security Council in New York. On the ready too are the Saudi armed forces and some Israeli air and naval units…

DEBKAfile’s military sources say the incident was but a pretext. According to incoming intelligence, Tehran plans to release a series of reprisals after sanctions are approved in New York Saturday evening, March 24.

The Islamic Republic is also cautioning its Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, whose foreign ministers meet visiting US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Assuan Saturday morning, not to cooperate with Washington’s regional policies and to stay neutral in the US-Iran dispute.

President Mahmoud Admadinejad’s last-minute cancellation of his appearance before the Security Council is further indication that Tehran gave up on diplomatic maneuvers for pre-empting the sanctions resolution and, assuming their approval was not preventable, turned instead to ramping up military tensions.

If their economy is as bad as advertised and if it’s really true that Russia is going to starve their Bushehr reactor, maybe they’re at the point where they’ve got nothing to lose by being provocative. If they get hit in response, so much the better for them; the affront to national pride would boost their popularity. But if they don’t get hit and they keep on provoking, the better the chances will be of getting Russia and China to agree to really tough sanctions — not the wrist-slap they’re going to pass this afternoon — after the next deadline passes. Can their economy really be so badly off that even draconian measures would do no further damage?

They’re starting to milk the hostage situation for propaganda value, too, which is not winning them friends in the EU. Should be an interesting last few months in office for Tony Blair.

Update: As expected. Mario Loyola says you can thank John Bolton, but don’t expect any more from the UN after this. We shall see. Meanwhile, Iranian blogger Kamangir says a website aligned with Ahmadinejad says Iran is looking for an apology.

Update: They don’t have the balls. Also, I was wondering when someone was going to bring up Asgari, the missing general. If Iran is really worried about their operations being transparent, he’d do as much damage as the five captured at Irbil. Well, the wait is over:

Intelligence sources said any advance order for the arrests was likely to have come from Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards…

Safavi is known to be furious about the recent defections to the West of three senior Guards officers, including a general, and the effect of UN sanctions on his own finances.

Note that at the end of the article an Iraqi military officer says the Brits were, in fact, in Iranian waters, just as the Iranians claim. An Iraqi fisherman who witnessed the incident begs to disagree.

Update: Blair has called a meeting of his “Cobra team.” Says one British defense official about Iran, “There is nothing to be gained in provoking a confrontation, because that would be playing into their hands. But neither should we let them have it all their way. We tried that before and we’re still trying to get our kit back.”

Update: We figured it was coming.

British Intelligence chiefs were warned in January to expect reprisal attacks from Iran after America detained five suspected Iranian intelligence officers in Iraq.

Although the CIA alert led to the United States raising its official security threat level throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, Britain did not follow suit.

The warning came after the US received credible information that Iranian-backed extremists were plotting attacks on Western targets.

American intelligence analysts told their British counterparts that the arrest of the five Iranians would have a direct impact on southern Iraq. Crucially, they warned that there was evidence that Iran intended to step up attacks in the border area and around Basra, where British forces are based.

Needless to say, the British military doesn’t believe the incident was a “misunderstanding.”