Iraq: The Sequel?

Think Again by Eric Alterman

We don’t know how the original comes out, but we do know they were lying the last time. One can’t help but wonder, what’s the rush this time?

There is a threatening rogue state in the Middle East. Its irrational leader is desperate to obtain Weapons of Mass Destruction. We can’t negotiate with them because they support terrorists. We have to prepare for armed conflict in order to safeguard the vital national security interests of the United States.

Stop me if you’ve heard all this before, but ask yourself, did you enjoy the first version of the “U.S. Attacks Ira?” so much that you’re eager to see (and pay for) the sequel?

A steady drumbeat in the mainstream media has made it clear to anyone who’s even half-paying attention that the U.S. is laying the groundwork for an attack on Iran. This does not mean that the attack is imminent, only that the Bush administration and its conservative allies in the media are in the process of making it politically possible.

To that end, U.S. forces have begun detaining Iranian officials found in Iraq and created a new Special Forces team specifically to hunt Iranians in Iraq. The United States has sent a second carrier group headed for the Persian Gulf, and Newsweek is reporting that a third will come after it. And on Sunday, anonymous U.S. military officials presented reporters with physical evidence they say proves not only that Iranian weapons are being used against Americans in Iraq, but also that the Iranian government made the decision to supply them.

Though some reporters evinced a somewhat credulous view of this scoop, they didn’t identify the officials behind the story—though The Columbia Journalism Review found one blogger who did.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, walked this story back a few days later, denying the inference that Iranian leadership was behind the weapons—that is, that they were effectively conducting a war against the United States.

Despite Pace’s remarks, the president announced at a Wednesday press conference that his administration knows part of the Iranian revolutionary guard connected to high officials in the Iranian government is supplying the weapons to Iraqi Shiite groups.

One would think that experienced reporters would know better than to take everything the Bush administration argues on faith. In the current Vanity Fair, Craig Unger quotes Philip Giraldi, a former Central Intelligence Agency counterterrorism specialist, on the many spooky similarities to the deliberate dishonesty of the run-up to the catastrophic Iraq war.

“It is absolutely parallel,” says Giraldi. “They’re using the same dance steps—demonize the bad guys, the pretext of diplomacy, keep out of negotiations, use proxies. It is Iraq redux.”

And yet it works. We are once again getting anonymous officials making unsupported allegations on the front-page of our biggest newspapers without anyone demanding proof of anything they say. It would be funny, were it not so scary.

Despite the questions surrounding the extent of the Iranian government’s involvement in Iraq, it’s clear that it isn’t exactly the United States’ failing efforts to come to a realistic solution there. It’s also clear that a nuclear Iran would be detrimental to the United States and international security.

The question is therefore, “What is to be done?”

Working through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, the Iranians attempted to reach out to the United States in 2006 for the purposes of addressing some of these problems. Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration national security staffer, reported three Iranian attempts to work with the U.S. in this 2004 New York Times op-ed.

More recently, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters he was interested in beginning non-proliferation talks. Last week, reformist members of the Iranian parliament offered to hold talks with their U.S. counterparts. Even the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group called for negotiations with Iran.

Alas, the Bush administration couldn’t care less. They refuse even to talk to Tehran because they are demanding a suspension of uranium enrichment as a pre-condition for the talks. Demanding that the other side give in before talks begin is usually—and properly—understood to imply that the person doing the demanding does not want to talk at all.

It seems possible to talk to North Korea, for example, and that looks to be a good idea. We have no guarantee that North Korea will follow the agreement, but it is still a major step. And despite opposing the plan because, he says, it rewards rogue states, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton noted: “this is the same thing that the State Department was prepared to do six years ago. If we going to cut this deal now, it’s amazing we didn’t cut it back then.”

One can imagine a current administration official ruing the failure to pursue negotiations with Iran years from now. And yet, according to almost everything we know, we do have years.

No one knows for certain since International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have been forced out of the country. But almost all reliable reports suggest that Iran isn’t even ready to begin a mass enrichment program; a recent attempt by President Ahmadinejad to make a major nuclear announcement fizzled.

What’s more, we know that we are hurting the people we hope to be aiding. Iranian moderates and reformers would rather the U.S. not empower Ahmadinejad by giving him a foreign enemy to attack.

As one Iranian told an L.A. Times reporter, “Mr. Ahmadinejad tries to make the international situation worse and worse. And now with the U.N. Security Council resolution, he can say, ‘Look, we are in a dangerous position, and nobody can say anything against us, because the enemy is coming into the country.’ Exactly like George W. Bush in Washington, D.C. They are helping each other. They need each other, I believe.”

This is taking place in the context of a recent electoral rebuke to Ahmadinjhad with victories for his moderate opposition. Laura Secor’s recent account in The New York Times Magazine noted that “Iran’s grand revolutionary experiment is beset with fragility.”

We don’t ultimately know how the original comes out, but we do know they were lying last time. One can’t help but wonder, what’s the rush this time? And what kind of journalism would, willingly, go for a second ride on this merry-go-round?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

Tim Fernholz is a Washington, DC writer.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow