Will the neocons’ Iranian PR campaign bomb?
Former White House chief of staff Andrew Card famously remarked that the reason the White House ramped up the case for the Iraq War in September was that “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” To judge from recent developments, Americans may look back on August 2007 as the month the country again turned toward war—with Iran.
The same network of think-tank analysts, media outlets, and government officials who brayed for war in Iraq have set their sights increasingly on Iran. Savvy as ever, they remain focused on consolidating public opinion and seem to be monitoring anti-Iran sentiment closely. Weekly Standard Deputy Online Editor Michael Goldfarb darkly warned in July that opponents of another Mideast war “shouldn’t be too surprised when [the] 60 percent [of Americans] opposing a war with Iran starts to dwindle—it has dropped five points in just the last six months.”
In late August, NYU professor and Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin related that a Washington source had told him that the same neoconservative institutions that urged the country into Iraq were preparing to “roll out a campaign for war with Iran” after Labor Day. According to Rubin’s informant, “evidently they don’t think they’ll ever get majority support for this—they want something like 35-40 percent support, which in their book is ‘plenty.’” Rubin later told the New Yorker’s George Packer that a source at a neoconservative institution in Washington had confirmed that account, noting, “I am a Republican. I am a conservative. But I am not a raging lunatic. This is lunatic.”
The purportedly perfidious role of Iran in Iraq sits at the center of the case for war. One can hardly open a newspaper or political magazine without reading table-pounding condemnations of Tehran. The Washington Post’s editorialists declare that Iran “is waging war against the United States and trying to kill as many American soldiers as possible,” and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute warns Newsweek’s readers that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “have long given aid to a varied list of terrorists, including, quite possibly, al Qaeda.”
The curious thing about the case against Iran, however, is that hawks have created this perception without providing so much as a Powell-at-the-UN-style dossier of evidence. Although administration officials have parroted claims against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for months, the charges are wholly based on inferential and nonspecific evidence that pales in comparison even to the trumped-up charges leveled against Iraq in 2002 and 2003.
A report entitled “Iran’s Proxy War against the United States and the Iraqi Government” was just published by The Weekly Standard in conjunction with the Institute for the Study of War, an apparently one-person think tank consisting of Kimberly Kagan, the wife of surge architect Frederick Kagan. Her prior public profile consisted mostly of assessing the inevitable success of the surge for The Weekly Standard—even though she had been a participant in the group that planned the troop build-up in the first place.
The Weekly Standard report compiled nearly every press account of Iranian involvement in Iraq, gathered from dubious sources ranging from the terrorist group Mujahideen-e-Khalq to New York Times reporter and erstwhile Judith Miller accomplice Michael Gordon, as well as a variety of anonymous sources. The last lines of the report’s summary noted that “with [al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency] increasingly under control, Iranian intervention is the next problem the Coalition must tackle.”
Emblematic of the selective reasoning in the Kagan report is one anecdote its author recounts. In describing a suspicious attack that killed five U.S. servicemen at an Iraqi base in Karbala in January, Kagan devotes two paragraphs to quoting a statement from Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner that pointed out that the Iraqi suspects captured in connection with the attacks had implicated the Quds Force of the IRGC. What Kagan does not point out, although she cites the Time article that reported the information, is that the formal U.S. investigation into the attacks implicated the very Iraqi police with whom the American servicemen were embedded—not Tehran. According to Time, “the U.S.’s initial probe of the incident found no evidence of direct Iranian involvement. Instead, the picture that emerged cast suspicion chiefly on senior Iraqi officials known to the Americans, as well as local thugs and associates of [Moqtada] al-Sadr.”
This incident represents one of the two significant problems with the claims that Iran is the root of our troubles in Iraq—let alone “at war” with us. First, the Bush administration has offered precious little conclusive evidence of Iranian “warfare” against U.S. troops— nothing close to the frenzied commentaries regarding Iran’s role in Iraq. Second, to the extent that Iran is involved with various factions in Iraq, those with which it is most deeply involved are the very same factions that are supportive of the Maliki government, which the U.S. government also supports. Thus, one is left with the tortured logic that claims our goal of propping up the Iraqi government is being undermined by Iranian support for … the very same political factions that comprise the Iraqi government.
The most important claim being made against Iran is that it is supplying sophisticated “explosively formed penetrators” or EFPs to various groups in Iraq that are using them to kill our soldiers. The pattern is for a military official to make a bold claim and then for a second official to substantially walk back the claim. Take, as one example, Gen. Peter Pace’s Feb. 2 declaration that the military was in possession of serial numbers that proved Iranian involvement in providing the materiel for EFPs to Iraqi militias. Less than a week later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates clarified, “I think that there are some serial numbers. There may be some markings on some of the projectile fragments that we found. I’m just frankly not specifically certain myself of the details, but I understand there is pretty good evidence tying these EFPs to the Iranians.”
This form of argument—a bold but unsubstantiated claim followed by a softening or outright repudiation—is reminiscent of several of the nudge-nudge arguments offered by the administration in the run-up to war in Iraq. In the case of EFPs, Jane’s Intelligence Digest noted in June, “it is unclear … that ‘made in Iran’ equates to ‘made by Iran.’” There are a variety of ways that weaponry of Iranian origins could make its way into Iraq. Its mere presence no more implies direction from Tehran than the loss of 190,000 American small arms in Iraq implies direction from Washington.
In addition, Jane’s reported, “uncertainties in the intelligence assessments have made it difficult to convince domestic or foreign audiences … of the accuracy of these statements.” Foreign audiences, perhaps, but the Jane’s authors may want to flick on Fox News or open the Washington Post editorial page to determine what domestic audiences are thinking. The phrase “difficult to convince” doesn’t come to mind when describing these audiences.
The second problem with the Iran blame game is that by and large the factions that the Iranians are accused of supporting and arming are the very same factions that control the Iraqi government. Both major Shia parties that comprise the Iraqi government have close ties to Iran, having been organized in exile there in the 1980s. Current U.S. strategy in Iraq is ostensibly based on consolidating enough support in the Iraqi government that U.S. troops can eventually leave. At the same time, the Bush administration is blaming the Iraqi government’s number-one supporter in the region for not being supportive enough.
Such inconsistencies have led to friction between the governments in Baghdad and Washington. When U.S. forces captured two Iranian officials in December, they were at the home of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of one of Iraq’s two major Shi’a parties who had just visited Bush at the White House the month before. The Iraqi government immediately demanded the Iranians’ release. Washington complied.
In January, U.S. troops scooped up another group of Iranians, the so-called “Irbil Five,” described by the Bush administration as members of the Quds Force wing of the IRGC. Tehran rebutted Washington’s accusation that the captured men were intelligence officials trying to wreak havoc in Iraq, stating flatly that Iran is “happy with the Iraqi government.” Once again, the Iraqi government took the side of the Iranians, dispatching Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to CNN to demand that the men be released and to point out that they were in Iraq at the invitation of the Kurdistan Regional Government. U.S. forces are still detaining the men, reportedly on the advice of Vice President Cheney’s office, which argues that holding them sends a signal to Tehran.
At times, the desire to ratchet up pressure against Iran has led hawkish commentators to make fanciful claims that are swiftly refuted—only to be rewarded for their efforts with higher media profiles. In May 2006, Amir Taheri published an explosive story explaining that Iran’s legislature had passed a law requiring Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians to wear colored badges, reminiscent of the reprehensible practice in Nazi Germany. The story proved to be entirely false, but Taheri’s utility as a demonizer of Iran must have impressed the hawkish editors of the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, which has run seven of his pieces since the badge story was debunked.
Perhaps the boldest and most swiftly refuted claim against the Iranians was another sensational story published by Eli Lake, a journalist and opinion writer at the neoconservative New York Sun. Lake rose to prominence after seeking former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s assessment of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s London Review of Books essay, “The Israel Lobby.” Duke’s endorsement of the paper became a centerpiece of the propaganda campaign to demonize and dismiss Walt and Mearsheimer without addressing their arguments. Lake’s subsequent work has focused on painting Iran in the most dangerous light possible, but he overplayed his hand with a July story entitled “Iran Is Found To Be a Lair of Al Qaeda.”
In that piece, Lake published a claim purportedly leaked to him that the National Intelligence Estimate judged that one of two senior al-Qaeda leadership councils “meets regularly in eastern Iran.” Lake reported, “there is little disagreement that a branch of al Qaeda’s leadership operates in Iran, [but] the intelligence community diverges on the extent to which the hosting of the senior leaders represents a policy of the regime in Tehran or the rogue actions of Iran’s Quds Force, the terrorist support units that report directly to Iran’s supreme leader.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Lake, the story was tersely refuted by National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats Edward Gistaro. Asked at a National Press Club briefing whether the judgment Lake described was in the final draft report, Gistaro replied, “No, it is not. I don’t think it was ever in the draft. … I read [the Sun article] this morning, and I thought, ‘I don’t know where this comes from.’” The transcript of the conference describes “laughter” in the room after this revelation, but in the fevered minds of those angling for war with Iran, the mission was accomplished. Some 41 percent of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. Voters do not always update their beliefs as claims are substantiated or debunked.
It is impossible to discern the motivations of the administration in constructing a public case against Iran. Perhaps the more cynical actors believe that it will frighten Iran into suspending uranium enrichment, the Bush administration’s precondition for starting negotiations over the nuclear program. But whatever its intentions, the real risk is that the administration will talk itself into a corner. Then, if the Iranians do not accede to Washington’s precondition for negotiations, and the public becomes convinced that Iran is “at war” with the United States, the obvious question becomes, “What are you going to do about it?” In such a scenario, the administration could find itself in a crisis of credibility, where a lack of decisive action would potentially demonstrate American weakness.
The good news on this front, much as it has not penetrated the Beltway foreign-policy consensus, is that there is little reason to believe that questions of credibility cut so cleanly. In his 2005 book Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats, Daryl G. Press of Dartmouth University wrote that after “five years of searching for links between backing down and diminished credibility,” he was surprised at his own conclusion: “leaders do not doubt the credibility of their enemies simply because they backed down in the past.”
Still, given the Beltway belief that backing down diminishes credibility, there is the very real danger that a combination of domestic politics and concern for showing weakness abroad could force a confrontation—even if that outcome is not one Washington is aiming for.
Of course, it is plausible that the Iranians could be causing trouble for American forces in Iraq by directly supplying or organizing Shia militias, much as they have cultivated Hezbollah as a proxy in Lebanon. The question that needs to be asked of those most forcefully pressing the case against Iran is what actual evidence we have that they are killing our troops. If there is one thing that should have been learned in the wake of the Iraq debacle, it is to view every piece of innuendo and inference offered by the government with a healthy skepticism. James Madison was right: “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”
After all, we’ve been here before. Asked about Iranian activity in Iraq, spokeswoman Maj. Alayne Conway conceded that the U.S. military has not captured any agents, but “just because we’re not finding them doesn’t mean they’re not there.” She might have been reading from the script Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used when he warned about Iraq’s phantom chemical and biological weapons: an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Justin Logan is a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.