There are a lot of bad things that one might say about Iran. The rule of the mullahs would be an unpleasant experience for most people, so much so that few outside of Hezbollah apparently want to emulate it. Opinion polls that attempt to assess favorable versus unfavorable impressions among the world’s nations invariably place Iran at the bottom of the rankings, along with the United States and Israel, its most bitter enemies.
There are many reasons for the negative assessment, including a stagnant economy that results in lack of opportunity, widespread corruption, a general grimness resulting from rule by religious fundamentalists, and a perception that Iran is intent on exporting its revolution. More recently, Iran’s Supreme Religious Council has even declared change itself to be undesirable, removing many reformers from the ballot to guarantee a conservative majority in elections.
No, Iran is not a pleasant place, and the recent evidence from the International Atomic Energy Agency, though possibly overstated under pressure from the U.S., suggests that those who are fearful of Tehran’s possible nuclear ambitions have legitimate grounds for concern.
There is also Hezbollah, which modeled itself on the Iranian theocracy and seeks to introduce a fundamentalist regime in Lebanon. The majority of Lebanese, who do not share the Hezbollah agenda, have a perfect right to be fearful of what might be coming. So do the Israelis. Their security concerns vis-à-vis Iran and Hezbollah are genuine. Nevertheless, it is possible to oppose what Iran and Hezbollah represent without having to resort to lies or misrepresentations to make a case against them, particularly as that is the path that the United States went down in 2002-2003 when it fraudulently contrived an argument for war with Iraq, a war that has left Iraq in ruins, generated a foreign policy disaster for the American people, and devastated the U.S. economy. What is particularly disturbing about the current debates on Iran and Hezbollah is the weakness of the case being made by the U.S. and Israeli governments. Make no mistake: both Tel Aviv and Washington want war, and war is a serious business, certainly a matter that is much too important to be left to politicians and politicized generals who appear to be making up the evidence as they go along.
The United States has not even managed to be consistent in its critique of Iran. It started by stressing the nuclear issue but then shifted focus after the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran came out in December 2007 declaring that Tehran had abandoned its weapons program in 2003 and had not restarted it. The focus is now on "advanced weapons" Iran supposedly provides to Iraqi insurgents. There is considerable evidence that both the British and U.S. governments believed that the so-called explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) used against coalition troops starting in 2004 were produced locally from the armaments left over from Saddam Hussein’s regime. But then, as the desire grew to implicate Iran in the problems inside Iraq, the weapons were increasingly described as sophisticated and of Iranian origin. In reality, experts on munitions believe that the EFPs can be made in any reasonably competent machine shop. Now Gen. David Petraeus would have the U.S. public believe that Iran is going far beyond even that role by training, funding, and equipping both the Sunni and Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq. Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials have also asserted that Iran is engaged in "secret negotiations" with al-Qaeda.
The charges against Iran are ominously similar to those that were made against Iraq in 2002 weapons of mass destruction, destabilizing the region, and supporting terrorism. It is completely credible that Iran, confronted by 160,000 U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, a flotilla in the Persian Gulf, and threatening language from the media and politicians in the U.S., would try to keep U.S. forces off balance and disrupt any intended attack. That interference may be a reality, and many observers believe Tehran’s influence is strong in Iraq, but the specific charges that are being made are curiously lacking in any supporting evidence. This is particularly surprising as Iranian-supplied weapons are allegedly a major element in the insurgency, meaning that many of them should have been captured if Tehran were truly a major player in the Iraqi security problem. If so, where are they? The United States has, in fact, produced some weapons alleged to come from Iran, at a press conference in Baghdad in February 2007. The display was unconvincing, however, with some weapons experts noting that the few pieces on display were from Iranian export stocks that could have come from anywhere. Since then there have been more claims of captured weapons with Iranian markings. Most recently, in early May, the U.S. command announced that it would display Iranian weapons captured in Basra and Karbala. The dog-and-pony show was abandoned when it was determined that the weapons in question were not, in fact, traceable to Iran. That the United States appears desperate to prove Iranian interference in Iraq yet cannot produce unambiguous evidence supporting that claim should set many alarm bells ringing.
Israel is now playing the same game in an attempt to implicate Iran. An odd series of "leaks" to the media last week by Israeli security sources reporting anonymously seeks to demonstrate that Iran is supplying sophisticated weapons to both Hamas and Hezbollah and playing a major role with a number of militant groups. It is certainly plausible given the hostility between the Islamic Republic and the Jewish state, but is it true? Israel claims that rockets fired from Gaza have markings, paint, and serial numbers that clearly indicate an Iranian provenance, though it did not provide any additional evidence to support the claim. According to the Israeli sources, the markings are in Latin script, which means that even if the rocket is Iranian, which is by no means certain and is only based on Israeli statements, it was produced for the international arms market and might have come from anywhere. Iranian rockets made for the Iranian military are marked in Farsi script.
There is another sure sign that what the Israelis are putting out is disinformation. The Israel National News Service reported the same story and attributed it as "according to the Associate Press." In fact, the source is the Israeli government itself the Associated Press was only reporting the story. Using a planted bit of information to confirm the same information that has been planted elsewhere is a classic intelligence service technique.
Is Iran as much of a threat as the Bush administration and the Israelis would like us to believe? Possibly, but until better evidence is provided, the American public should remain skeptical. If there is one lesson that has come out of the Iraq experience, it is that the White House is not to be trusted when it comes to the issue of war and peace.