Sometimes it really is déjà vu all over again. Those who have hoped for a peaceful resolution of the outstanding issues between the United States and Iran must have been discouraged to watch the June 5 Republican presidential candidates’ debate. With the honorable exception of Ron Paul, the Republicans lined up firmly in support of a policy to stop Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon using whatever means are necessary to do so, including the American nuclear arsenal. All except Paul derided Iran as the main source of terrorism in the world. Rudy Giuliani repeated the now familiar “you shouldn’t take any options off the table” when asked about the possible use of nuclear weapons against Iran and stated that he even opposes Iran’s acquisition of “nuclear power.” Duncan Hunter said flatly that he “would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons” against Iran. The top Republican candidates united in their view that the Democrats would be soft on the issue of Iran, a charge that lacks validity as the leading Democratic candidates for president are as bellicose as the Republicans when it comes to Tehran’s ambitions.
And the media is doing its bit to help the cause, just like in the lead-up to Iraq, this time by completely ignoring the issue. The New York Times‘ coverage of the debate did not even mention Iran, stressing instead disagreements on immigration policy. The Washington Post also was silent, as if the general agreement by presidential candidates to use nuclear weapons to bomb a sovereign nation that has not attacked the United States is not newsworthy.
It is arguable that the candidates are just polishing up their pro-Israel credentials and are not to be taken seriously when they speak about Iran, a subject on which they appear to know little or nothing. But is also possible that momentum is building that will lead to a war willy-nilly, whether or not it is in the national interest and whether or not anyone genuinely wants it. Iran’s alleged support of terrorism refers to its links to Hamas and Hezbollah, groups operating against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and parts of Lebanon and not against the United States, a refinement that appears to exceed the grasp of America’s political elite. Sam Brownback specifically insisted that “we have to stand with our allies like Israel,” revealing that he considers Israel’s security paramount.
Several candidates referred to the Iranians killing American soldiers, an allegation that has been around for some months and is clearly becoming the focal point for efforts to create a consensus that Iran must be stopped, no matter the costs or consequences. The rhetoric is particularly significant in that it parallels recent developments in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, where hope springs eternal that Iran will be nuked before the sun sets on the Bush administration. Cheney is reportedly very interested in obtaining definitive evidence confirming that Iran is arming the Taliban against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and it appears that he has been sending his staffers to get the goods by attending the weekly Afghanistan Interagency Operating Group.
On one level, if the Iranians were assisting the Iraqi Shi’ite militias with which they have had long-standing relations, it should not come as a great surprise. The United States armed militias against the Russians in Afghanistan and against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, setting the precedent for such activity. Iran is confronted by 160,000 U.S. soldiers across the border in Iraq and two carrier groups in the Persian Gulf. It has been hearing mostly threats from Democrats, Republicans, and the White House. Nonetheless, the case that Iran is arming insurgents with sophisticated weapons able to destroy any of the armored vehicles in the U.S. arsenal is tenuous at best.
The evidence for the existence of so-called enhanced improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq consists of reports that go back more than two years. The first reports stated that there was a new type of sophisticated IED being used in Iraq. By one account, the new IEDs appeared to be the product of a weapons factory because they were all machined in the same way, while in another version the IEDs had some parts of Iranian origin, though how that was determined is unclear. It was further claimed that some of these weapons were intercepted on the border between Iraq and Iran. Variations on the story indicated either that Iranian “experts” were helping the Iraqis build IEDs that were more effective or that Iran was training Shi’ite militiamen in their use. More recently, it has been alleged that Iran is even supplying the highly effective ordnance to its traditional enemies, including Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda.
One thing that all the stories about Iranian involvement have in common is their lack of substantiating detail. There are no names, dates, places, or corroborating information, and most rely on anonymous government sources or bald assertions that are presented as fact. Photos of alleged captured ordnance have been unconvincing. Further, the presence of the weapons, even if true, cannot be traced back to any official Iranian government body or policy through documentary or other evidence. In March 2006, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that there was no evidence to back up the claims of direct Iranian involvement in the development of the more effective IEDs, referred to as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs). The United Kingdom media has reported that the EFP is, in fact, a British design that was inadvertently given to the IRA in a sting operation that went horribly wrong in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s. It is not an Iranian innovation or something that is unique to Tehran’s arsenal.
A widely advertised Pentagon briefing in Baghdad in February 2007 was supposed to provide stacks of documents and examples of hardware that would make the case for Iranian involvement. The press conference turned out to be a bust, with little more than fragments of ordnance actually on display. When questioned, a senior Defense Department analyst admitted that there was no “smoking gun.” Other sources familiar with the weapons themselves and with Asian weapons markets in general have noted that Iraqis hardly need instruction or assistance in constructing the IEDs and EFPs, as they have become the real experts in their design and deployment. The Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein had many specialists in ordnance design working in its armories, most of whom have been unemployed since 2003. The sources also note that Iraq is well supplied with all the artillery shells and bombs it could possibly need to construct huge and highly sophisticated roadside weapons, all accomplished without any need for Iranian assistance. One British Defense Ministry source estimates that the Iraqis have enough high explosives on hand to continue IED attacks at the current level for the next 274 years. When Iranian-origin weapons do show up, many can be traced to illegal and quasi-legal arms markets that exist throughout central Asia.
More recently, there are claims that Iranian-produced IEDs and EFPs are appearing in Afghanistan. The first alleged Iranian EFP, discovered this past spring by a British unit fighting as part of the NATO force in southern Afghanistan, was found among a shipment of weapons that was presumed to be going to the Taliban. The British initially were hesitant about passing the information to the United States because of serious concerns that Cheney would use the new intelligence as a pretext to start a bombing campaign against Iran.
In April 2007 Gen. Peter Pace said that other Iranian-made weapons had been captured at Taliban bases in Kandahar and along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The claim was then reiterated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, and White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino. Defense experts in Europe who monitor weapons sales and arms smuggling dispute the claim, however, noting that the Iranians have a particular antipathy for the Taliban. The Taliban executed eight Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997 and have declared Shi’ite Islam to be a heresy. Iran undoubtedly is working to cultivate its ties with Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority the Hazars, who live close to the border between the two countries, but there is no love lost between Tehran and the Taliban. As for the weapons themselves, Afghanistan is awash with arms that were manufactured by Iran, Russia, the United States, and China. Many of the weapons are leftovers from the years of Russian domination, while the newer equipment derives from the civil war that followed in which the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance. The Iranians provided the Northern Alliance with weapons, as did the United States and Russia. One journalist source describes the Pace allegations as a “war of words with little relationship to reality.” Another diplomatic source speculated that the statements appear to be part of a coordinated effort to demonize Iran, possibly to prepare the American public and world opinion for a military strike later this year.