The first major effort by the George W. Bush
administration to substantiate its case that the Iranian government has been
providing weapons to Iraqi Shi'ites who oppose the occupation undermines the
administration's political line by showing that it has been unable to find any
real evidence of an Iranian government role.
Contradicting recent claims by both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that U.S. intelligence had proof of Iranian
government responsibility for the supply of such weapons, the unnamed officials
who briefed the media Sunday admitted that the claim is merely "an inference"
rather than based on a trail of evidence.
Although it was clearly not the intention, moreover, the briefing revealed
for the first time that the Iranians and Iraqis detained by U.S. forces in recent
months did not provide any evidence implicating either the Iranian government
or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in the acquisition of armor-piercing explosive
devices and other weapons by Iraqi Shi'ite groups.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace further underlined the
weakness of the administration's case by declaring Monday in an interview with
Voice of America. "It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it's clear
that materials from Iran are involved," he continued, "but I would
not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit."
In the end, the administration presentation suggested that there could be no
other explanation for the presence of Iranian-made weapons than official government
sponsorship of smuggling them into Iraq. But in doing so, they had to ignore
a well-known reality: most weapons, including armor-piercing projectiles, can
be purchased by anyone through intermediaries in the Middle East.
The briefing displayed a number of weapons or photographs of weapons said to
have been found in Iraq, including what were called "explosively formed
penetrators" (EFPs), which the officials said were smuggled into the country
by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard "Quds Force." The RPG-7s and 81
mm mortar rounds shown to reporters did indeed have markings showing that they
had been recently manufactured, and there is no reason to doubt that those weapons
were manufactured in Iran.
The argument for Iranian official responsibility assumes that such weapons
are so tightly controlled that Shi'ite groups could not purchase them in small
numbers on the black market in Iran, Syria or Lebanon. It is well documented,
however, that the Shi'ites have resorted to black market networks to obtain EFPs.
An article in Jane's Intelligence Review last month by Michael Knights,
chief of analysis for the Olive Group, a private security consulting firm, reports
that the British discovered that there was indeed an organization in Basra engaged
in arranging for the purchase and delivery of imported EFPs and that it was
comprised entirely of police officials, including members of the Police Intelligence
Unit, the Internal Affairs Directorate, and the Major Crimes Unit. They found
that members of the organization followed no specific Shi'ite faction, but included
members from all the factions in Basra.
The Washington Post quoted one of the U.S. officials at the briefing
as saying that there was no "widespread involvement" of the Iraqi
government in supplying weaponry, thus implicitly conceding that some elements
of the Iraqi government officials are indeed involved in the weapons traffic.
By insisting that the Iranian government was involved, the Bush administration
has conjured up the image of a smuggling operation so vast that it could not
occur without official sanction. In fact, as Knights points out, the number
of EFPs exploded monthly has remained at about 100, which clearly would not
require high-level connivance to maintain a flow of imports.
The PowerPoint slides
presented to the press in Baghdad ended with a slide that essentially confirms
that the evidence points not to official sponsorship of cross-border weapons
smuggling but to private arms trafficking networks.
The slide includes the curious statement that information from detainees "included
references to Iranian provision of weapons to Iraqi militants engaged in anti-coalition
violence." That formulation carefully avoids stating that any of the information
implicated Iranian officials. Furthermore the slide's six bullet points, representing
the concrete "highlights" of the information, fail to make reference
to any official Iranian role in the smuggling of weapons across the border.
In fact, the slide reveals that the smuggling is handled by what it calls "Iraqi
extremist group members," not by the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary
Guards. The oral presentation accompanying the PowerPoint indicated that the
smuggling had been carried out by "paid Iraqis," without specifying
who was paying them, according to the New York Times report.
The final bullet point of the slide says, "Quds Force provides support
to extremist groups in Iraq by supplying money, training, and propaganda operations."
But its silence on the question of supplying weapons to groups in Iraq represents
a serious blow to the credibility of the administration's line.
The EFPs used against U.S. and British troops in Iraq were the centerpiece
of the briefing. But the anonymous U.S. officials did not claim that the finished
products have been manufactured in Iran. Instead they referred to machining
of EFP "components" referring to the concave metal lids on
the devices as being done in Iran.
That position parallels the testimony by Gen. John P. Abizaid on March 16,
2006, to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which claimed only that "sophisticated
bomb-making material from Iran has been found in improvised explosive devices
It also raises an obvious question: if Iran has the technical ability to supply
the complete EFPs, why are only components being smuggled into Iraq?
The absence of shipments of complete EFPs suggests that the components that
have been smuggled in have been manufactured in small workshops outside the
official system. Knights, the most knowledgeable and politically neutral source
on the issue, says these components could have been manufactured by a "small
handful of external bomb-makers." He notes that the only source to claim
that the Iranian defense industry is the source of the EFP components is the
opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The U.S. briefers argued that EFPs are not being manufactured within Iraq.
The New York Times quoted a "senior military official" as saying
that they had "no evidence" that the machining of components for EFPs
"has ever been done in Iraq."
But Knights presents evidence in Jane's Intelligence Review that the
Iraqi Shi'ites have indeed manufactured both the components for EFPs and the
complete EFPs. He observes that the kind of tools required to fabricate EFPs
"can easily be found in Iraqi metalworking shops and garages."
He also notes that some of the EFPs found in Iraq had substituted steel plates
for the copper lining found in the externally made lids. Knights calculates
the entire production of EFPs exploded thus far could have been manufactured
in one or at most two simple workshops with one or two specialists in each
one in the Baghdad area and one in southern Iraq.
"I'm surprised that they haven't found evidence of making EFPs in Iraq,"
Knights told IPS in an interview. "That doesn't ring true for me."
Knights believes that there was a time when whole EFPs were imported from outside,
but that now most, if not all, are manufactured by Iraqis.
Taking into account the false notes struck by the anonymous officials, the
damaging admissions they made and the absence of information they needed to
make a case, the briefing appears to have been a serious setback to the administration's
propaganda campaign. It will certainly haunt administration officials trying
to convince Congress to support its increased aggressiveness toward Iran.
(Inter Press Service)