Iran Charges Reflect Failed Iraq Policy
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Iran Charges Reflect Failed Iraq Policy
by Stephen Zunes
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.
The Most Recent Charges
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
Virtually all attacks against U.S. forces over the past couple of years have
come from Baathist, 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.
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.
Why Such Claims?
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
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.
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
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-Qaida terrorist network, both
of which are fanatically anti-Shi’ite and anti-Iranian. Nor did he address the 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-Qaida 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 extremists.
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 of 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-Maleki 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 Shiite 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
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
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 Iran.
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 States.
Stephen Zunes www.stephenzunes.org is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus where this analysis first
appeared. He serves as a professor of Politics at the University of San
Francisco. and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the
Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.)