Iran: A Hidden War

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“Nobody in my office ever said there was an operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.”
— Former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, 2/12/07

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— The Weekly Standard, 11/24/03


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  February 12, 2007
A Hidden War
Go Beyond The Headlines
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A Hidden War

Yesterday, anonymous Defense Department officials briefed reporters in Baghdad and offered “what they said were examples of Iranian weapons used to kill 170 of their soldiers and implicated high-level Iranian involvement in training Iraqi militants.” No one denies that Iran is attempting to influence events in Iraq. As former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, notes, “Iran and Syria have influence in Iraq. … [W]e cannot wish that influence away. Undoubtedly, they are part of the problem. It was the view of the study group that we must try to make them a part of the solution.” But yesterday’s presentation — like other claims of Iranian involvement in Iraq — left unanswered questions about the quality of the Bush administration’s intelligence, concerns about its provocations, and resolve for the need to engage in diplomatic talks with Iran.

AN ‘ESCALATING TIT-FOR-TAT’: Sunday’s briefing accusing high-level Iranian officials of supplying Iraqis with weapons to kill American forces capped off months of escalation by Bush administration officials. In his Jan. 10 address to the nation on his new Iraq strategy, President Bush included “some of his sharpest words of warning” to Iran. “I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier group to the region,” he said. This build-up is “the largest concentration of naval power projection in that region” since the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Vice President Cheney explained that sending the carriers “sends a very strong signal to everybody in the region” that “we clearly have significant capabilities…to deal with the Iranian threat.” Shortly after Bush’s speech, American forces stormed Iranian government offices in northern Iraq, detaining six people. Just weeks later, Bush confirmed he had authorized a Pentagon program to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq. Newsweek also notes, “The Americans have hinted that as part of an escalating tit-for-tat, Iranians may have had a hand in a [devastating] raid in Karbala on Jan. 20, in which four American soldiers were kidnapped and later found shot, execution style, in the head. U.S. forces promised to defend themselves.” Alarmed by rising tensions between the United States and Iran, “Iraqi government officials fear their country is in danger of being dragged into the middle of a new conflict between its two main allies.” The President’s advisors “are effectively saying, ‘Invade Iran. Then everyone will see how smart we are,'” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and an influential conservative who backed the Iraq invasion. One ambassador in Washington “said he was taken aback when John Hannah, Vice President Cheney’s national security adviser, said during a recent meeting that the administration considers 2007 ‘the year of Iran’ and indicated that a U.S. attack was a real possibility.”

‘MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS’: One senior defense analyst at yesterday’s briefing admitted that there was no “smoking gun” linking Tehran and Iraqi militants. Three anonymous Defense Department officials offered what they described as a “growing body of evidence” that high-level Iranian officials are involved in manufacturing and exporting “armor piercing explosives, known as ‘explosively formed penetrators,’ or EFPs, that have killed more than 170 coalition troops” in the past two years. The Washington Post described the briefing as the “farthest that coalition forces have gone to make the case that Iran is working to attack U.S. and Iraqi troops.” But as NPR noted, reporters walked away “with more questions than answers,” frustrated that the officials were “saying they have all this evidence” but weren’t “showing it to [them].” Even Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, Labeed M. Abbawi, said, “It is difficult for us here in the diplomatic circles just to accept whatever the American forces say is evidence. If they have anything really conclusive, then they should come out and say it openly, then we will pick it up from there and use diplomatic channels” to discuss it with Iran. The recently released National Intelligence Estimate acknowledged that Iran is attempting to support Shiite militias in Iraq. But it also clearly stated that Iran is not the driving force behind Iraq’s violence: “Iraq’s neighbors influence, and are influenced by, events within Iraq, but the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability.” Sunday’s presentation came after multiple delays. On Feb. 2, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said that White House twice pulled it back because it wanted to get the presentation “narrowed and focused on the facts.” But according to a report in National Journal, it was actually the intelligence community — not administration officials — who demanded that the presentation be “scrubbed” of overstated claims.

MEDIA REPEATING PRE-WAR MISTAKES: Media outlets expressed only limited skepticism about Sunday’s briefing, with most deciding to put the story on the front pages. Editor and Publisher notes, “An article by Joshua Partlow from Baghdad — currently atop the [Washington Post’s] Web site — carried the declarative headline, ‘Iran Sending Explosives to Extremist Groups in Iraq,’ without even ‘U.S. officials say.'” Former CNN reporter Eason Jordan, who now runs the site IraqSlogger, reported that the Voices of Iraq news service identified one of the anonymous Defense Department officials who presented reporters with the Iran presentation was “Major General William Caldwell, whose portfolio includes public affairs and who holds frequent news conferences and grants one-on-one interviews.” “So, if the VOI report identifying Caldwell is correct, why did every other news organization apparently agree to grant anonymity to the general who’s the official spokesman of the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq?” questioned Jordan. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman similarly asks today, “Why wasn’t any official willing to take personal responsibility for the reliability of alleged evidence of Iranian mischief, as opposed to being an anonymous source? If the evidence is solid enough to bear close scrutiny, why were all cameras and recording devices, including cellphones, banned from yesterday’s Baghdad briefing?” A Saturday New York Times article by Michael Gordon previewed yesterday’s Baghdad briefing and recited administration claims about Iran’s involvement in Iraq “without the slightest questioning, investigation, or presentation of ample counter-evidence.” Editor and Publisher’s Greg Mitchell points out that it was Gordon “who, on his own, or with Judith Miller, wrote some of the key, and badly misleading or downright inaccurate, articles about Iraqi WMDs in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.”

TRYING DIRECT TALKS: There is no doubt that Iran has negative influence in Iraq. As violence in Iraq spirals out of control, the United States has the opportunity to begin engaging Iran in direct talks to make it a “part of the solution.” William Odom, a retired Army lieutenant general and former National Security Agency director, points out that it is “absurd” to think Iran should have “zero influence” in Iraq. “One of the president’s initial war aims, the creation of a democracy in Iraq, ensured increased Iranian influence, both in Iraq and the region. Electoral democracy, predictably, would put Shiite groups in power — groups supported by Iran since Saddam Hussein repressed them in 1991,” he wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post. Bush continues to oppose diplomatic talks with Iran. The Iraq Study Group, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and former Secretary of State Colin Powell have all criticized the administration for its refusal to negotiate. “We know the obstacles — the obstacles are pretty easy to set forth — but how do you know unless you try? Talking is not appeasement. It’s diplomacy. Conversation with a country is not capitulation,” said Hamilton. The Iraq Study Group noted that the United States negotiated with Moscow throughout the Cold War era. “All kinds of things can happen when diplomats get together and begin talking about the relationships,” Hamilton added. Overall, 75 percent of Americans support U.S. talks with Iran. Increasingly, bipartisan groups of lawmakers are coming out and opposing the administration’s escalating drumbeat on Iran. On Sunday, Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) said the United States should try to stop the flow of munitions through Iran to Iraq, but that “you do that by interdiction…you don’t do it by invasion.”

Under the Radar

SCIENCE — CHRISTIANS CELEBRATE DARWIN’S WORK ON ‘EVOLUTION SUNDAY’: Today is Darwin Day, commemorating the anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The National Academy of Sciences, “the nation’s most prestigious scientific organization,” declares evolution “one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.” President Bush’s science adviser John Marburger calls it “the cornerstone of modern biology.” Yesterday, “flocks of the Christian faithful in the U.S.” from 530 congregations held special services dubbed “Evolution Sunday” to celebrate Darwin’s work. “For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science,” says Michael Zimmerman, founder of Evolution Sunday and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. “We’re saying you can have your faith, and you can also have science.” The religious right continues to press schools to include “intelligent design” — “an updated version of creationism couched in modern biological terms” — created to avoid the constitutional challenges that teaching creationism has faced. But if proponents of “intelligent design” wish for their theory to hold the same stature in the scientific community as evolution, there is an appropriate course of action: Like any other researchers, they should subject their critiques and theories to repeated testing and submit their findings to be reviewed by their peers. Instead, as it stands now, “church groups and other interest groups are pursuing political channels” to crowbar their views into public classrooms.

IRAQ — ESCALATING TROOP LEVELS FAIL TO STEM VIOLENCE: In the week since the beginning of the President’s planned escalation in Iraq, “more than 1,000 Iraqis and 33 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died.” Despite President Bush’s promise of a “new plan” free of “political and sectarian” interference, the Associated Press has reported a “sectarian tilt” to the early stages of Bush’s escalation with Iraqi commanders “urging the Americans to go after Sunni targets.” With 5,000 new troops already in Baghdad, Iraqi citizens are calling the situation “the same or worse.” One American officer dismissed such doubts, calling the Iraqis, “a bit jaded.” The new plan was supposedly contingent upon the “follow through” of the Iraqi government, but as the new initiative is launched, Iraqi commanders have been able to supply only “55 to 65 percent” of the troops they had promised for service in Baghdad. Despite large numbers of Iraqi citizens being killed or wounded in attacks as recently as this morning, U.S. soldiers are coming up empty-handed. In one recent raid, U.S. troops “managed to capture only 16 suspects and seize three Kalashnikov rifles in a neighborhood that intelligence said was a hotbed of bomb-makers.” Such failures are receiving little air-time, however, with the administration choosing to focus on accusations of Iran’s interference in Iraq.

NORTH KOREA — NO BREAKTHROUGH IN NUKE TALKS: After four days of six-party talks, prospects for North Korea’s nuclear disarmament seemed grim Sunday after a disagreement over whether to grant North Korea’s (DPRK) wish for huge shipments of energy aid. The stalemate revolved around North Korea’s demand for large amounts of heavy fuel oil in exchange for shutting down its primary nuclear facility at Yongbin and whether to readmit “international inspectors as the first phase of what the Bush administration had hoped would be a long-term plan for complete denuclearization.” The chief U.S. envoy to North Korea, Christopher Hill, argued that such massive energy assistance up-front from the United States would not guarantee that DPRK would carry out further steps in the denuclearization timeline. A failure to reach an agreement with North Korea would question whether disarmament could even be seen under the Bush administration’s clock. “Several Asian diplomats said they feared that North Korea had sensed the American distraction in Iraq and could be trying to run out the clock until the election of a new president.” Furthermore, this is not the first time the U.S. has reached a stalemate with North Korea under the six-party talks. Unless a breakthrough is reached today with North Korea, the future of the six-party talks could be in jeopardy. Chief South Korean negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, said, “It’s not a situation where a breakthrough is in sight.”



Think Fast

“Thunderous explosions and dense black smoke swirled through the center of Baghdad Monday when at least two car bombs…tore through a crowded marketplace, setting off dozens of secondary explosions and killing at least 71 people.”

Maj. Gen. Jim Simmons, a deputy commanding general in Iraq said that insurgents had adopted new tactics and stepped up their efforts to shoot down American helicopters. Simmons acknowledged the unreported downing of a Black Hawk late last month, and revealed that enemy fire had hit at least 17 U.S. helicopters a month in Iraq.

The Washington Post noted that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has called on big soft money donors to bankroll his expected presidential campaign, despite the fact that he has personally campaigned against the use of “soft money.” McCain called the Post article the “worst hit job that has ever been done in my entire political career.”

Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan for 21 months, said, “The intelligence has gone cold on Osama bin Laden.” He also said he expected a fresh offensive by the Taliban in the spring and an “increase in enemy activity.”

“A growing number of states are paying antiabortion activists to counsel women with unplanned pregnancies. At least eight states — including Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania — use public funds to subsidize…programs explicitly designed to steer women away from abortion.”

“Three days of intense debate over the Iraq war begins in the House today, with Democrats planning to propose a narrowly worded rebuke of President Bush’s troop buildup and Republicans girding for broad defections on their side.”

As the defense phase of Scooter Libby’s perjury trial begins, Vice President Cheney “is expected to make a historic appearance on the witness stand,” where he “may be forced to describe in uncomfortable detail how he directed the counteroffensive” against Amb. Joseph Wilson.

“Two senior officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who opposed many questionable management and spending decisions by the agency’s former director are being moved to lower-ranking positions effective Thursday.”

U.S. Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan lack more than 4,000 of the latest advanced Humvee armor kits, designed to reduce U.S. troop deaths from roadside bombs that are now inflicting 70 percent of the American casualties in Iraq. The Army has is giving priority to troops in Baghdad, but the upgrade is not scheduled to be completed until this summer.

And finally: “The scars may have gone away but our memories haven’t: Yes it was one year ago yesterday that Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot his lawyer, Harry Whittington.” Even in Tasmania, where Cheney is scheduled to go fly-fishing this month, one resident wrote the newspaper, “PLEASE assure us that Dick Cheney is coming to Tasmania to fish and not to shoot.