The Fire Next Time?

A lonely news report emerged last week on the “Babylon & Beyond” blog of the Los Angeles Times about the Bush administration and Pentagon’s continued attempts to build a case for war against Iran. Tina Susman reported on a news briefing by Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner in Iraq about the discovery of what was said to be a huge a cache of weapons seized by U.S. forces. In what Susman described as a “striking change,” Bergner did not point the finger at Iran. In fact, that nation’s name never even came up.

This significant omission comes on the heels of another barely noticed event, also reported by Susman: “A plan to show some alleged Iranian-supplied explosives to journalists last week in Karbala and then destroy them was canceled after the United States realized none of them was from Iran.” Few news outlets reported the press conference’s cancellation, which was going to be conducted by both the Pentagon and the White House. (Though Newsweek helpfully attributed the cancellation only to “fighting in southern Iraq.”)

The administration has been beating the drums on alleged Iranian malevolence in Iraq with increasing intensity, going so far as to move an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf last month to serve as a “reminder” of the Iranian threat, in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And many in the mainstream media have repeated these claims with frequency and without much challenge.

On April 10, President Bush claimed Iran was continuing to “arm and train and fund illegal militant groups, which are terrorizing the Iraqi people.” He warned that “[if] Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests, and our troops, and our Iraqi partners.” In announcing the movement of the aircraft carrier—which, incidentally, is the same carrier on which President Bush made his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech in May 2003—Secretary Gates said, “what the Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen and women inside Iraq.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), has also charged that "the militias that we are fighting [in Iraq] are backed by Iran.”

As with the prewar “intelligence” on Iraqi weapons programs, critics and skeptics do not have their own intelligence agencies to challenge the Bush administration—at least publicly. Meanwhile, as with Iraq, supporters beat the drum of war within the context of a credulous conservative media. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton told Fox News last week that he can “definitely” envision a scenario where President Bush would bomb Iran before he leaves office, saying, “This is entirely responsible on our part.” The conservative Washington Times also recently published a harsh editorial titled “Tehran’s murderous role.”

And it’s not only the partisans. CNN’s Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre told Lou Dobbs on April 25 that, “They [the Pentagon] see the situation in Iraq now as intolerable, allowing the Iranian influence to, as Bob Gates put it, kill U.S. troops in Iraq direct—people directly trained and armed and motivated and sometimes even directed by Iran. It’s simply something the Pentagon says can’t continue.”

There are countless repetitions of the Pentagon’s charges of weapons smuggling, prefaced only by phrases like “the Pentagon says.” For example, Ann Curry on NBC’s "Today" said, “Instead [Gates] says it should be a reminder to Tehran, which Washington accuses of smuggling weapons to militants in Iraq.”

These frequently repeated claims are unproven at best. Neither the United States nor Iraqi government officials have ever provided any weapons that they can prove were developed in Iran—that was, of course, the goal of last week’s press conference, until it was cancelled. Lately, Susman reports, “it is looking less likely they will provide any evidence of weapons made in Iran being used in Iraq."

Administration officials insist that it is up to the Iraqis to show the Iranian weapons. But in another little-reported development, the Iraqis have backed off claims of any Iranian interference. Last week, an Iraqi delegation went to Iran to confront leaders about the alleged meddling, but came back convinced there was none: “We don’t have that kind of evidence …" Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said afterward.

Katie Couric and David Martin dramatically reported the planned meeting on CBS’ "Evening News," saying, “Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is expected to confront the Iranians with evidence of their meddling and demand a halt. And if that doesn’t produce results, the State Department has begun drafting an ultimatum which would tell Iran to knock it off or else.” Incredibly, they’ve yet to report the truth—that no accusation occurred.

Additional facts also go unreported. For instance, the United States itself has had a notable role in arming the insurgency: Dissolving the Iraqi Army in the aftermath of the invasion flooded the country with weapons and, more recently, the Pentagon admitted that it had lost track of a third of the weapons distributed to the Iraqi security forces in 2004/2005, totaling almost 190,000 assault rifles and pistols currently on the streets in Iraq.

Recall, moreover, that the administration is supporting the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Badr militia against Muqtada al-Sadr, when, as Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the ISCI “was essentially created by Iran, and its militia, the Badr Brigade, was trained and equipped by the Revolutionary Guards.” The historian Gareth Porter writes that the Badr militia is the “most pro-Iranian political-military forces in Iraq.” ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim “met with [Iranian Revolutionary Guard] officers to be his guests in December 2006, apparently to discuss military assistance to the Badr Organisation.”

Nor is there news mention of the fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, counts himself among the supporters of a U.S. attack on Iran. "We hope that war ‘saps’ both Washington and Tehran,” he said according to a press report. “The dispute between America and Iran is a genuine struggle, and the possibility of the U.S. striking Iran is real…. Whichever country that emerges victorious will find itself in an intensified and fierce battle [with Al Qaeda].”

Those of us who warned against a U.S. invasion of Iraq, alas, are sensing a feeling of what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.