NY Sun: White House helped free Iranian diplomat

Watch this first. It’s from Tuesday’s press conference. Not even a minute long.

Now here comes the Sun.

The decision to release Jalal Sharafi on Tuesday was made at the White House, according to an administration official who asked to be anonymous because of the sensitivity of the information. The release took place over the objections of some commanders in the field. Mr. Sharafi, the second secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, is believed by American military intelligence also to be a member of the lethal Quds Force, the terrorist-supporting organization whose members have been fair game for American soldiers and Iraqi allies since a change in the rules of engagement was issued in December…

The release of Iranian nationals detained by America was one of the primary Iranian demands during the negotiations. “They think they won this round. They were able to take the hostages and suffer no consequences,” an American official said…

The administration official yesterday said that Mr. Sharafi’s capture was not ordered by American forces, but he was interrogated in a facility overseen by both Iraqi and American commanders.

“Had this guy been in Iraqi custody, we all know he would have been in Iran weeks ago,” an Iraqi diplomat said yesterday on condition of anonymity.

Did Bush lie about there being no quid pro quo? Maybe not. According to the Independent (whose credibility, it should be noted, is not at its zenith right now), Tony Blair himself had no idea the sailors were going to be released until Ahmadinejad uttered the words at this morning’s press conference. Which means Sharafi might have been sprung purely as a goodwill gesture, with no guarantee of receiving anything in return.

So if it wasn’t a quid pro quo, it was something much worse.

And that’s not all. Captain Ed was rightly skeptical this morning of a report from Iranian state news that the U.S. had agreed to let an envoy from the regime meet with the five Quds Force members captured in Irbil. But now, via WaPo, we find that his skepticism might have been misplaced:

The U.S. military has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit five Iranian officials who were detained in Iraq nearly three months ago on suspicion of plotting against American and Iraqi forces.

A Red Cross delegation that included one Iranian citizen visited the detainees, and a request for a formal consular visit with them is “being assessed at this time” by the U.S. military, said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

In a briefing for reporters Wednesday, Caldwell did not say when the visit took place or whether it was connected to the case of the 15 British sailors and marines detained by Iran on March 23; Iran subsequently announced that they would be released.

Ed thinks it’s not a big deal even if it’s true, but as a harbinger of the Quds Five eventually being sent home, it’s worrisome. Which leads us to our exit question: How long will Bush wait before letting them go so as to avoid the appearance of a quid pro quo? (Exit answer: Three weeks.)