US lacks 'explosive' evidence against Iran

By Gareth Porter

01/17/06 "
IPS' -- -- WASHINGTON - For 18 months, the administration of US President George W Bush has periodically raised the charge that Iran is supplying anti-coalition forces in Iraq with arms.

Previously, high administration officials have always admitted that they had no real evidence to support these claims. Now, they are going further. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on her current Middle Eastern trip, "I think there is plenty of evidence that there is Iranian involvement with these networks that are making high-explosive IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and that are endangering our troops, and that's going to be dealt with."

However, Rice failed to provide any evidence of official Iranian involvement.

The previous pattern had been that US and British officials suggested that Iranian government involvement in the use by Sunni insurgents or Shi'ite militias of "shaped charges" that can penetrate US armored vehicles was the only logical conclusion that could be drawn from the facts. But when asked point blank, they admitted that they had no evidence.

That allegation serves not just one Bush administration objective, but two: it provides an additional justification for aggressive rhetoric and pressure against Tehran and also suggests that Iran bears much of the blame for the sectarian violence in Baghdad and high levels of US casualties from IEDs.

The origins of the theme of Iranian complicity strongly suggest that it was a propaganda line aimed at reducing the Bush administration's acute embarrassment at its inability to stop the growing death toll of US troops from shaped charges used against armored vehicles by Sunni insurgents.

The US command admitted at first that the Sunnis were making the shaped charges themselves. On June 21, 2005, General John R Vines, then the senior US commander in Iraq, told reporters that the insurgents had probably drawn on bomb-making expertise from the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's army.

A Pentagon official involved in combating the new IEDs also told the New York Times that the first such bombs examined by the US military had required considerable expertise, and that well-trained former government specialists were probably involved in making them. The use of infra-red detonators was regarded as a tribute to the insurgents' "resourcefulness", according to the Pentagon source.

But some time in the next six weeks, the Bush administration made a decision to start blaming its new problem in Iraq on Tehran. On August 4, 2005, Pentagon and intelligence officials leaked the story to the National Broadcasting Co (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System that US troops had "intercepted" dozens of shaped charges said to have been "smuggled into northeastern Iraq only last week".

The NBC story quoted intelligence officials as saying they believed the IEDs were shipped into Iraq by Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah, but were "convinced it could not have happened without the full consent of the Iranian government".

These stories were leaked to coincide with public accusations by then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad that Iran was meddling in Iraqi affairs. A few days after the stories appeared, Rumsfeld declared that these shaped charges were "clearly, unambiguously from Iran" and blamed Tehran for allowing the cross-border traffic.

But the US administration had a major credibility problem with that story. It could not explain why Iran would want to assist the Sunnis, enemies of the militant Shi'ite parties in Iraq that are aligned with Iran.

British troops in Shi'ite southern Iraq, where the shaped charges were apparently used by Shi'ite militias, had an equally embarrassing problem with the IEDs penetrating their armored vehicles. An unnamed senior British official in London told the British Broadcasting Corp on October 5, 2005, that the shaped charges that had killed British troops in southern Iraq had come from Hezbollah in Lebanon via Iran.

The following day, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the occasion of a joint press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to declare that the circumstances surrounding the bombs that killed British soldiers "lead us either to Iranian elements or to Hezbollah". But Blair conceded that he had no evidence of such a link.

Privately, British officials said the only basis for their suspicions was that the technology was similar in design to the shaped charges used by Hezbollah in its war to drive Israel out of southern Lebanon in the 1980s.

Anthony Cordesman, a highly respected military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, explained why the storyline blaming Iran for the IED problem in Iraq didn't hold water. "A lot of this is just technology that is leaked into an informal network," he told the Associated Press. "What works in one country gets known elsewhere."

The Blair government soon dropped that propaganda line. The Independent reported on January 5, 2006, that government officials acknowledged privately that there was no "reliable intelligence" connecting the Iranian government to the more powerful IEDs in the south.

However, the US administration continued to push that accusation, and Bush himself raised the theme for the first time at a press conference last March 13. "Some of the most powerful IEDs we're seeing in Iraq today," he said, "came from Iran."

Bush quoted the then-director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, as testifying, "Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing Shi'ite militia with the capability to build improvised explosive devices."

No reporter has followed up on what Negroponte meant by providing the "capability" to build such devices or why the militias would need to go outside Iraq to find that know-how.

The day after Bush's press conference, General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted at a Pentagon news conference that he had no evidence of the Iranian government sending any military equipment or personnel into Iraq. Rumsfeld, appearing with Pace, said, "All you know is that you find equipment in a country that came from the neighboring country."

Last November, as the release of the Iraq Study Group Report approached, Bush administration officials again planted the story of intercepted Iranian-made weapons and munitions it had leaked in mid-2005. The American Broadcasting Co reported on November 30 that a "senior defense official" had told the network of "smoking-gun evidence of Iranian support for terrorists in Iraq: brand-new weapons fresh from Iranian factories".

The new twist in the story was that the weapons allegedly had manufacturing dates in 2006. The story continued, "This suggests, say the sources, that the material is going directly from Iranian factories to Shi'ite militias, rather than taking a roundabout path through the black market."

The assumption underlying the anti-Iran Defense Department spin that a private market for weapons or, more likely, components, could not move them from Iran across the porous border to Iraq in a few months is far-fetched.

At about the same time, Bush apparently gave orders that the US military should seize any Iranians in the country in an effort to get some kind of evidence to use in support of its propaganda theme. The first such operation came in central Baghdad just before Christmas, and a second raid against Iranian diplomats in Irbil was carried out to coincide with the president's speech on a new Iraq policy on January 10.

These raids, presented to the public as part of a campaign against targets supposedly identified through good intelligence, were clearly aimed at trying to substantiate an anti-Iran line for which the Bush administration has no credible evidence. Those raids now create a requirement to produce something new to justify them.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.

Copyright Inter Press Service

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