Faced with growing public opposition to the U.S.
war in Iraq, the Bush administration has been desperately trying to divert attention
to Iran. Washington has gone so far as to make a series of dubious and unfounded
charges that blame the Iranian government for the difficulties facing American
forces fighting the Iraqi insurgency.
Despite the absence of any credible reports of Iranian involvement in attacks
on U.S. forces in Iraq, President George W. Bush last month formally authorized
U.S. forces to "kill or capture" suspected Iranian agents in Iraq.
"It makes sense that if somebody's trying to harm our troops, or
stop us from achieving our goal,"
Bush said , "that we will stop them." It is unclear how U.S.
occupation forces will be able to consistently discern the many thousands of
ordinary Iranians who come to Iraq on business or for religious pilgrimages
from these alleged agents they are authorized to kill. But the U.S. authorization
does appear to effectively grant a license to assassinate Iranian officials
who serve in various diplomatic functions. Heavily armed American forces have
already seized several Iranian diplomats over strong protests of both the Iranian
and Iraqi governments.
Virtually all attacks against U.S. forces over the past couple of years have
come from Ba'athist, Sunni, and other anti-Iranian groups. If Iranian-backed
Shi'ite militias are also now targeting American forces, as President Bush implies,
U.S. soldiers are now caught in a wedge between militants of both Arab communities.
Despite U.S. charges, however, U.S. soldiers at this point have little to fear
from Iran or Iranian-backed elements.
Similarly, of the more than 10,000 suspected insurgents arrested in U.S. counter-insurgency
sweeps, the relatively few foreigners among them have been Arabs, not Iranians.
It makes little sense, then, why the Bush administration has depicted Iran as
the principal foreign threat to U.S. forces in Iraq. The National Intelligence
Estimate on Iraq, compiled by America's sixteen intelligence agencies
and issued on February 11, downplayed Iran's role in Iraq's ongoing
violence and instability.
Indeed, the Bush administration's sudden focus on Iran's role in
Iraq may simply be an effort to provoke an Iranian reaction that could then
become an excuse for war. Whatever the reason, the motivation for blaming Iran
must be pretty strong, given how much effort the U.S. government is putting
into promoting such weak evidence.
The Most Recent Charges
The administration's case so far has been based
primarily on assertions that bomb fragments, such as those displayed by U.S.
military officials in a February 11 press conference in Baghdad, were of Iranian
origin. They have shown no proof making this linkage, however. U.S. officials
originally promised that they would be able to show documents, computer files,
confessions by captured Iranians, or evidence that Iranian officials were caught
with explosives. None of this has been made public, however, raising doubts
as to whether such evidence even existed in the first place.
U.S. officials have noted the increased sophistication over the past several
months of what are known as "improvised explosive devices" (IEDs),
which have been used by Iraqi insurgents against U.S. and Iraqi military convoys.
The increased sophistication is not necessarily a result of outside aid, however.
In virtually every conflict, particularly those involving irregular warfare,
each side constantly seeks to improve the accuracy and lethality of its weapons
in the course of the struggle.
Of particular concern to U.S. officials has been the increase in attacks by
IEDs using "explosively formed projectiles" (EFPs). U.S. officials
claim that such devices have killed 170 U.S. and allied soldiers, which constitutes
only a small proportion of the nearly 4000 U.S. and allied troops killed in
the war so far. But the capability of these EFPs to penetrate heavy armor makes
them particularly difficult to defend against.
While the Bush administration
insists that the machine-tooling was so sophisticated that they could only
have been manufactured in Iran, British government scientists
have found that the devices could have simply been "turned on a lathe
by craftsmen trained in the manufacture of munitions." The pre-invasion
Iraqi army and the munitions industry that supported it certainly possessed
enough resident technical expertise to produce the material that the insurgents
are using. Indeed, it is rather bizarre that the same U.S. administration that
insisted just four years ago that Iraq was technologically advanced enough to
produce long-range missiles and was on the verge of developing an atomic bomb
would now be incapable of developing an effective roadside bomb without direct
support from its neighbor Iran.
Furthermore, so many metal tubes and explosives were stolen from Iraqi army
stockpiles during the chaos following the 2003 U.S. invasion,
the insurgents have enough materiel to manufacture their own IEDs for decades.
It is also important to note that these more lethal IEDs are not a recent nefarious
Iranian invention designed to attack American troops. Indeed, insurgent groups
such as the
Irish Republican Army have used EFPs to attack enemy patrols for decades.
Even if the pieces of weaponry displayed by U.S. military officials came from
Iran, there is a huge black market in various explosive devices in Iraq. So
it would not be surprising to find components from any number of countries,
including those of recent manufacture. Given the lack of security along the
long Iranian-Iraqi border, it would not be difficult to smuggle weapons across
the frontier without the knowledge of either government. Furthermore, despite
its repressive theocratic orientation, the Iranian regime is hardly monolithic.
Even if some of these devices were of Iranian origin, it is far more likely
that they entered Iraq through the machinations of individual Iranian officers
or criminal gangs than as a result of orders from the "highest levels
of the Iranian government," as
alleged by the United States.
In short, the administration has thus far made a series of dubious assertions
without evidence. "We know more than we can show,"
one senior official claimed when pressed for tangible evidence that the
EFPs were made in Iran. Unless or until they can show more, however, there is
no reason to believe their alarmist claims.
Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace,
admitted that there was no proof that the Iranian government was supplying
Iraqi insurgents with the lethal weaponry. The British government
withdrew similar charges over a year ago. The Iraqi government has
also denied U.S. accusations of an Iranian connection.
Why Such Claims?
Given that the increased use of EFPs has been
apparent for many months and the U.S. government has not produced any additional
evidence regarding their origins, it is highly probable that Washington is raising
the issue now primarily for political reasons. Indeed, National Public Radio
reported that military officials in Iraq were under intense pressure from
Washington to go public with these findings right away.
Most speculation has centered around the possibility that the Bush administration
is trying to divert attention from the failures of its policies in Iraq by blaming
a foreign government. More disturbing still would be U.S. efforts to lay the
groundwork for a U.S. attack on Iran. It may also be an attempt to provide cover
for President Bush's rejection of the growing bipartisan consensus –
as exemplified by the Baker-Hamilton Commission Report – of the importance
of engaging Iran on issues related to Iraq and regional security.
In his January 10 speech announcing the escalation in American combat forces
in Iraq, President Bush insisted that Iran was "providing material support
for attacks on American troops" and allowing "terrorists and insurgents"
to use its territory "to move in and out of Iraq." In response,
he made a not-so-subtle threat to attack Iran. "We will disrupt the attacks
on our forces,"
Bush said. "We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran...and
we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training
to our enemies in Iraq."
Bush presented no evidence to support these charges. Nor did he address why
Iran would support "terrorists and insurgents" that elsewhere in his speech
he identified as Sunni extremists and part of the al-Qaeda terrorist network,
both of which are fanatically anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iranian. Nor did he address
considerable evidence that what limited outside support the insurgents
have been receiving has come primarily from private sources in Saudi Arabia,
a U.S. ally.
By the time of the State of the Union speech later that month, however, the
administration began to realize that its charges that Iran was somehow aiding
al-Qaeda and other enemies of its allies in Baghdad were not being taken seriously.
So they began to push the far more plausible message that Iran was arming Shi'ite
Segments of the Iranian government and religious hierarchy certainly have been
providing training, arms, financial, and logistical support to Iraqi Shi'ite
political groups and their militias. Some of these militias have engaged in
death squad activity against the Sunni Arab community in Iraq.
However, most these groups are allied with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.
Indeed, the largest party in the ruling coalition is the Supreme Council for
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose leadership spent most of their
exile years in Iran and was recognized as the government-in-exile by the Iranian
clerics while Iraq was still under Saddam Hussein's rule. The Iranian Revolutionary
Guards trained and organized the SCIRI's militia, known as the Badr Corps, which
even fought alongside Iranian forces during the 1980s in the war with Iraq.
Similarly, the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Patriotic
Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of President Jalal Talabani also have had close and
longstanding ties with the Iranian government. By contrast, with the possible
exception of some radical elements outside the official government hierarchy,
Iranian authorities have generally been reluctant to ally themselves with the
more extremist anti-government Shi'ite factions.
In other words, the Iranian government and the U.S. government are essentially
on the same side in Iraq's ongoing conflict. Thanks to the willingness
of the United States to overthrow its secular archenemy Saddam Hussein, Iran
now has close allies in charge in Baghdad. And, as part of a desperate effort
to curb the growing Sunni-led insurgency, the United States has been willing
to throw its support to Iraq's democratically elected government, though
it is run by pro-Iranian Shi'ite hardliners, and to turn a blind eye as
the Badr Corps and other radical Shi'ite militias have thoroughly infiltrated
the Iraqi police and military.
On one hand, President Bush is quite correct
in alleging that, in response to terrorist attacks against Shi'ite
civilians by elements of the Sunni-led insurgency, "Radical Shia elements,
some supported by Iran, formed death squads" that have contributed to
the "vicious cycle of sectarian violence that continues today."
What he ignores, however, is that the majority of this death squad activity
has come from U.S.-armed-and-trained Iraqi police and military units.
According to official Central Command figures, these forces have received
thousands of U.S.-made machine guns, grenade launchers and high-mobility vehicles
– not to mention hundreds of thousands of AK-47 rifles – courtesy
of the American taxpayer.
In other words, the United States is far more responsible for providing support
for death squad activity by radical Shi'ite militiamen in Iraq than is
Not only has the United States suffered enormous
losses in lives, resources, international standing, and long-term security as
a result of its invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has delivered a strategic
and diplomatic windfall to the reactionary Iranian mullahs and their supporters
in both countries.
Rather than acknowledge this predictable result of that tragic decision, however,
President Bush has instead put the blame on the Iranians. He has insisted they
have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of their next-door neighbor
that the United States invaded and, nearly four years later, continues to occupy.
Furthermore, instead of recognizing that Iran is simply seeking to gain some
advantage from the dramatic U.S.-instigated changes in the political and strategic
situation on their western flank (as would any regional power in a comparable
situation), President Bush has tried to depict Iran's role as something
far more sinister: as yet another front of "the war on terrorism."
It is true that, not surprisingly, the Iranian government has pursued policies
that have generally not encouraged the establishment of a democratic, pluralistic
and stable Iraqi society in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. However, it
is extremely dangerous for the Bush administration to misrepresent and exaggerate
Iranian actions and to engage in hyperbole and threats. Although elements of
the Iranian regime may have contributed to the suffering of the Iraqi people,
it pales in comparison to the damage inflicted upon that country by the United