The past eight years have been so catastrophic for the United States that it is sometimes difficult to put things in perspective, but certain patterns do emerge. Starting in the summer of 2007, when Iraq was still in total chaos, Gen. Ray "Greater Than Napoleon" Odierno gave a series of press conferences in which he stated that Iran was providing weapons and training to both Shi’ite and Sunni insurgents. Charges that Iran was also supporting al-Qaeda soon followed, and both congressional and media critics were soon in full cry, leading to the Kyl-Lieberman amendment of September 2007, which all but declared war on Tehran.
The absurdity of Iran supporting Sunni terrorists who would sooner shoot a Shi’ite than a U.S. soldier did not in any way inhibit the spread of the story of Persian perfidy, which quickly spread throughout the mainstream media, confirming the carefully cultivated, widely held view that Tehran was killing Americans through its involvement in Iraq.
Now Iraq has calmed down, at least for the time being, and it is Afghanistan’s turn to become the new "central front in the war against terrorism." And Iran is reported to be meddling again. If that sounds familiar, it should, because it is the same story being told all over again by pretty much the same journalists and talking heads. Iran is being portrayed as the evil force that is supporting the Taliban insurgency. That history would suggest the contrary, that Tehran is unlikely to forget that the Taliban murdered 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 and that Taliban doctrine considers Shi’ites heretics who should be killed, apparently is not enough to ruin a good story.
The latest tale of Iranian evil intent surfaced in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times of London on March 1 reporting that Iran is supplying the Taliban in Afghanistan with surface-to-air missiles capable of destroying helicopters. Journalist Michael Smith attributes his information to otherwise unidentified "American intelligence sources." But both the Pentagon and the British Defense Ministry claim to have no information confirming Smith’s account, and the Times has in the past often served as a conduit for disinformation put out by the British and Israeli governments. The report suggests, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the Taliban wants to use the Russian-made SA-14 Gremlin missiles to launch a "spectacular" attack against ISAF forces. U.S. and NATO helicopters operating in Afghanistan are equipped with defensive systems to deflect missiles, but the SA-14 can apparently evade most counter-measures. According to the Times story, the presence of SA-14s was first noted several weeks ago when parts from two of them were found during an American operation in western Afghanistan.
If effective mobile ground to air missiles were to be given to the Taliban, it would mark a major shift in the Afghan fighting, similar to the provision of Stingers to the mujahedeen to bring down Russian helicopters in the 1980s. But it is not all that simple. The SA-14 is not state-of-the-art weaponry. It has been around since 1974, and tens of thousands have been sold to countries all over the world, including every country in central Asia. Numerous SA-14s are also believed to be available in commercial arms markets. The link to Iran is far from demonstrated even if parts were found, suggesting that the story is a fabrication intended to further blacken Tehran’s image and put more pressure on its government. The jump from finding some parts, if it is even true, to an active, state-supported Iranian program to provide a battlefield weapon that Tehran surely knows would trigger a devastating U.S. response is simply not credible.
And then there is the question of nuclear Iran, always a convenient fallback line if one wants to make a case for preemptive warfare. Not surprisingly, Israeli politicians and media have been leading the charge. In the recently completed election campaign, leaders of the four leading parties, ranging from Labor on the Left to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the far Right, all denounced the Iranian threat and pledged to deal with it by military means if necessary. That Israel does not have the military wherewithal to attack Iran unilaterally and also has the sticky problem of requiring Iraq overflight means that the United States would have to be involved in any such mission. So far, the Obama administration has not signaled its willingness to become engaged in yet another preemptive war, but rest assured that AIPAC and its friends are working to overcome that obstacle.
The truculent Israeli position was dutifully picked up by the American media and replayed widely in spite of the report by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran’s stockpile of low-level enriched uranium is all accounted for and there is no indication of any weapons program. President Obama’s reticence notwithstanding, when Israel wants war, Washington generally follows Tel Aviv’s line. Negotiations with Iran promised by candidate Obama may already be politically dead, designed to fail if and when they start. Hillary Clinton has clearly indicated that she believes that negotiating with Iran is unlikely to produce any positive results, a position reflective of a high level of officially expressed skepticism in the new administration. She has also said the proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe is intended to defend against Iran, even though Tehran has neither long-range offensive missiles nor warheads, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has stated that Iran already has the fuel to make a nuclear weapon. New CIA Director Leon Panetta has said that Tehran is intent on building a bomb, and President Obama is also on board, indicating his belief that Tehran is moving to acquire nuclear arms. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates strikes a somewhat more cautious note, commenting that Iran is still far away from having an atomic bomb, a view supported by intelligence analysts at the CIA, who report that there is absolutely no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.
The views of Clinton, Panetta, and Obama should not be surprising, because they are making a political judgment based on their own assessment of Tehran’s intentions, which is admittedly a tricky business and highly speculative. For them, Iran is a potential threat that has been demonized for years in the United States, and no one has ever lost votes by attacking the mullahs. Quite the contrary. To give Obama his due, he probably would like to see talks with Iran succeed, but he is assuming the worst and hedging his bets. He wants to have the powerful Israeli lobby on his side whichever way he turns. Clinton’s unwillingness to negotiate is somewhat simpler. She is a faithful disciple of the Israeli lobby who does her annual pilgrimage to the AIPAC convention and says all the right things. She will not do anything that looks like accommodating the Iranians.
And then there is the baleful presence of Dennis Ross, now busily furnishing his grand new office on the seventh floor of the State Department. Thomas Friedman in the New York Times hails Ross as a "super sub-secretary," part of a "diplomatic A-team" that will coordinate policy to put pressure on Iran to end its weapons program. Friedman, who has been wrong in his assessments more times than Bill Kristol, is clearly pleased at what Ross represents. Ross had his move to State announced somewhat prematurely by his colleagues at the AIPAC-affiliated Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), and opposition to him almost derailed the appointment.
In addition to WINEP, he has recently been on the Israeli government payroll, serving as chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. One assumes that he has severed that particular connection, but he is nevertheless a terrible choice for any senior diplomatic post dealing with Iran. His appointment is a sign that AIPAC had to be appeased by the new administration. Because of Ross’ considerable baggage, his new position was announced quietly through a press release, naming him as a special adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia. He is another Clinton-era legacy that America can do without, having served recently on a bipartisan commission advocating talking with Iran as a prelude to bombing it. He has powerful supporters in Congress and the Israel lobby who will undoubtedly seek to leverage his position to make him the point man for confronting the Iranians.
So there you have it. Iran is not going to go away, and campaign promises are easily forgotten as the Obama players line up to continue the Bush policy. Tehran will be cited as the agent provocateur if things go south in Afghanistan, as is all too likely. If there is one truth about Washington, it is that both Republicans and Democrats alike need someone to blame when things go wrong. If there were no scapegoat, they would have to blame themselves, and we can’t have that, can we?