The Case of the Tell-tale Tunnels: Tall Tales from the Times

The drumbeat for war with Iran started quite some time ago, but as we begin the new year the tom-toms are getting more frenetic and certainly louder. It wasn’t twenty-four hours after the intrepid Gareth Porter effectively debunked the latest war propaganda in the Times of London – a forged document purporting to show Iranian nuclear scientists working on a design for a "nuclear trigger" – that they started bringing out the big guns: a "news" story in the New York Times claiming the Iranians are hiding their bomb-making activities deep in underground tunnels.  

Porter’s deconstruction of the London Times document – viewed as highly dubious by the US intelligence community according to former spook Phil Giraldi – exposed the latest example of a classic method of war propaganda: the simple forgery. It’s a hoary old trick, one used by the British with FDR’s full cooperation, and on both sides during the cold war years. More recent examples, such as the infamous Niger uranium forgeries, indicate no advances in the form, unless one considers reaching new levels of crudity a kind of progression. Armed with Google, it took IAEA scientists but a few hours to debunk the Niger forgeries.  

The President of the United States, having made a major speech justifying the Iraq war on the basis of these badly-done fakes, had  reduced what was left of America’s credibility to less to than zero.  

It was a blow from which our international prestige has only just begun to recover. How likely is it that this supposedly "smart" and "pragmatic" administration will fall for the same sort of ruse that so badly embarrassed their predecessors? Oliver Kamm is gloating because he thinks it’s very likely, but It will take more than the Kamm scam to drag us into attacking Iran. However, it’ll do by way of setting the stage for the Iran war narrative to unfold: a story based not so much on facts as on myths and symbols, universal archetypes of fear and looming death, supported by bits and pieces of "intelligence." 

That’s what this story in the New York Times on the ominous threat emanating from scary Iranian tunnels – illustrated with a photo of Ahmadinejad and Iranian enginners lined up wearing hardhats and posing in front of a tunnel – is all about.  

So what is this horrific new development, this latest evidence of Iranian perfidy that could justify going to war? Well, you see, those dastardly Iranians are building … tunnels! 

Clearly an act of war – I mean, come on: what nation on earth not dedicated to world domination and a foreign policy of relentless aggression would even think of boring miles of tunnel beneath solid rock? I can’t think of one – can you

The piece starts out by asserting that Iran may be hiding its nuclear bomb-making activities – assuming there are any – and then goes on to present zero evidence of such activities – beyond the fact that Iran is indeed building plenty of tunnels. Oh, and Ahmadinejad, originally an engineer, is a bit of a tunnel-maniac: 

"Heavily mountainous Iran has a long history of tunneling toward civilian as well as military ends, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has played a recurring role — first as a transportation engineer and founder of the Iranian Tunneling Association and now as the nation’s president. 

"There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of big tunnels in Iran, according to American government and private experts, and the lines separating their uses can be fuzzy. Companies owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, for example, build civilian as well as military tunnels." 

Every tunnel in Iran is now suspect, a terrain upon which the war propagandist-cum-"reporter" can spread out and build his narrative of impending doom-unless-we-act. These subterranean chambers of nuclear death are conjured out of the boomer generation’s worst nightmares — a generation taught to "duck and cover," cowering beneath their desks waiting for World War III to begin. That this sort of propaganda is aimed at actually starting what would be a third world war is only the beginning of the ironies and absurdities contained in this imaginative narrative, which might be classified in the lexicon of war propaganda as a tall tale

As distinct from the outright forgery, and the related but distinct fabrication or amalgam (i.e. a half-truth, at best), the tall tale is a mixture of myth and symbol supported by a thin architecture of mundane fact. As the Times breathlessly informs us: 

"Ahmadinejad began professional life as a transportation engineer with close ties to the Revolutionary Guards and an abiding interest in tunnels. He helped found the Iranian Tunneling Association in 1998, according to the group’s Web site. That year, the Tehran subway began a major expansion, and Iran, in secret, accelerated its nuclear program." 

First they build subways, and then before you know it they’re building underground nukes – it’s a natural progression. Here it seems we’re establishing a new standard of international conduct, one which will — naturally — have to be enforced by the US at gunpoint. By way of exercising our "right" of preemption, it is now okay to launch a preemptive strike against this target right here, as kind of a warning shot.  

Not to make light of the dire threat posed by these sinister tunnels, and the spider-like creature behind them, the sinister Ahmadinejad, whose affinity for tunnels and tunneling bespeaks an almost Satanic intent: 

"In early 2004, while mayor of Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad served as chairman of the Sixth Iranian Tunneling Conference. He praised the leaders of ancient Persia for creating networks of subterranean waterways and called for the creation of new ‘tunnels’ between the government, universities and professional groups." 

This means exactly – what? That Ahmadinejad made a speech in which he used tunnels as a metaphor for making the communication between different departments and agencies more efficient?  

Citing and even highlighting this curious detail does nothing to bolster the case that Iran is secretly constructing nuclear weapons in underground caverns. Yet if one were writing a novel, on the other hand, and not reporting an actual news story: that is, if one were constructing a narrative that one was selling for ulterior motives – say, starting a war – then a detail like that would be entirely appropriately. It would be a touch of color and a good way to characterize and motivate this fictional creation, which is, indeed, what Ahmadinejad has become.  

By singling out the Iranian President, hardly the decisive or dominant figure in Iranian politics, the War Party achieves an important goal, which is to fictionalize the discourse, to divorce it from reality and make the war issue an emotional one, as they did in the wake of 9/11. The idea is to fixate on a single easily-hated leader, and in Iraq the choice was easy: Ahmadinejad is the new Saddam. 

He certainly is playing his role like a real pro, but as usual the war propagandists go to ridiculous extremes, such as this: 

"’I ask God to help us all,’ he said in a paper. Such tunneling conferences, held regularly in Tehran, draw global manufacturers of tunnel-boring machines — giant devices as big as locomotives that dig quickly through rocky strata. Terratec, an Australian maker, noted early last year that Iran had recently become ‘one of the most active markets in the world’."  

War propaganda of the tall tale variety relies on sensational imagery supported by mundane fact: those gigantic earth-eating machines, drilling into the very core of the earth, carving out a hiding place for a secret evil. Oh, the drama of it! It’s an underground bunker that can only be breached by the most powerful weapon in the American arsenal – which just happens to be up for development, after being cancelled because of supposed defense "budget cuts." How’s that for a coincidence! The Times reports: 

"The device — 20 feet long and called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator — began as a 2004 recommendation from the Defense Science Board, a high-level advisory group to the Pentagon. ‘A deep underground tunnel facility in a rock geology poses a significant challenge,’ the board wrote. ‘Several thousand pounds of high explosives coupled to the tunnel are needed to blow down blast doors and propagate a lethal air blast.’ 

"The bomb carries tons of explosives and is considered 10 times more powerful than its predecessor. It underwent preliminary testing in 2007, and its first deployments are expected next summer. Its carrier is to be the B-2 stealth bomber. 

"Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in October that budget problems had delayed the weapon but that it was now back on track. Military officials deny having a specific target in mind." 

We’ll shove that Massive Ordnance Penetrator deep into the soil of Iran, scorching the earth with our fiery seed – and if you can’t see the demographic that kind of imagery is aimed at, then you haven’t reached puberty yet and maybe never will.  

The story-line goes downhill from there, citing numerous anonymous "experts" of one sort or another speculating – without a shred of concrete evidence – about the possibility that Tehran may be hiding nuclear activities and/or facilities in this supposed underground labyrinth. 

The point of these stories, or narratives, is not so much to convict Iran as violating the strictures of its international treaty obligations, nor to make the case for war according to some rational standard of a "just war," but to set up the conditions whereby it is possible to manipulate public opinion on a sub-rational emotional level. This requires the construction of a mythos resting on a tenuous foundation of irrelevant facts, i.e. Ahmadinejad’s alleged pro-tunnel fanaticism. The crown on this shaky edifice is the essentially baseless allegation that the Iranians are preparing to make a nuclear weapon, a conclusion contradicted by the CIA’s own National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, which avers "with high confidence" Tehran abandoned efforts to craft a nuke in 2003. Yet this is now being discounted, and not just by the neocons but by the Obama-ites. Once again, our own intelligence community is being bypassed in favor of a parallel group, a small cadre of unnamed "advisors," who are feeding the President Israeli- and European-supplied "intelligence" of dubious provenance, i.e. in at least one case a known forgery

We saw the same thing in the run-up to the Iraq war, a fact the author of the Times piece mentions by way of explaining the reasons why no one has taken this seriously, up until now, that is. That, however, is not the only reason to feel that tingle of deja-vu up the spine.  

Once again we have a highly dubious, one might even say dicey, "exile group" feeding the New York Times bogus "intelligence." Last time, you’ll recall, it was the Iraqi National Congress peddling all sorts of cockamamie stories about Iraq’s alleged "weapons of mass destruction." They were under Saddam’s palaces, they were hidden in the mountains, they were here, they were there, they were everywhere. In the end, after all the blood had been spilled and we were stuck in the Iraqi quagmire beyond hope of extrication, the leader of this group, one Ahmed Chalabi – a convicted embezzler and known turncoat – announced that he and his group were "heroes in error." In short, they lied us into war – and now history is repeating itself, albeit with a few original touches thrown in here and there, just to keep the story interesting. 

The chief source cited in the Times piece is the Iranian "National Council of Resistance," which is an officially-designated terrorist organization, according to our very own State Department: it seems they bumped off a few of our overseas diplomatic personnel back when they were denouncing us as evil "imperialists" and enemies of the Iranian people. The "National Council," which the author of the Times piece shortens to simply "council," lower-case, is in reality a front group for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), or People’s Mujahideen, an Iranian Marxist-terrorist sect that idolizes its leader, Maryam Rajavi, the self-proclaimed "President" of Iran: I"ve written at length about this weirdo cult, and be sure to follow that last link of you want the full flavor of the exotic nuttiness of MEK. 

Suffice to say here that the cultists were originally succored by Saddam: he provided them with arms, money, and bases out of which to launch terrorist attacks on Iranian civilians over the years, and for this they enjoy zero support inside the country they claim to want to "liberate."  

After the US invasion, MEK’s status of peculiar autonomy persisted: there were calls inside the Bush administration to unleash them against Iran, and they enjoyed the run of the place until the Iraqi government got its act together, and established its sovereignty – and now the showdown with MEK has arrived, with the cultists camped out at Camp Ashraf, their headquarters near the Iraq-Iran border, vowing not to be taken alive. All the elements of a stand-off culminating in an eruption of violence are in the works: a crazed cult, a determined external authority, a compound, and an impending siege: it’s an Iraqi Waco in the making.  

The show of force by the Iraqis demonstrates that they are not going to take sides in the coming US-Iranian confrontation, and certainly aren’t going to let a cult of provocateurs operate from their soil. Watch out for a move in Congress – where this nut-cult has a lot of support – to evacuate them to the United States, and similar moves in Europe. Isn’t that just what we need now, at this very moment – more terrorists in our midst

The tall tale of the sinister tunnels is just the beginning. As I warned last year: get ready for a veritable tsunami of war propaganda directed at Iran and "exposing" its alleged nuclear agenda. Because of the sheer volume of this kind of material, the War Party can’t afford to be too choosy about its sources: various compliant "experts" and the Rajavi cult will have to do, for a start. This sets the tone of the debate, and creates an emotional atmosphere in which the option of going to war is the default and proponents of peace must prove why this course would be disastrous.  

In order to get to that point, however, it is necessary to inundate the discourse with a flood of war propaganda: tall tales, forgeries, rumors in the guise of "intelligence," all integrated into a consistent storyline or narrative that justifies military action. This narrative may rationalize war in a way that may not be strictly logical, but the important point is that it must be emotionally satisfying (or at least momentarily palatable) to key sectors of the American public.  

When the public is sufficiently saturated in this rainstorm of nuclear alarmism and Irano-phobia, then and only then can the bombs begin to fall. It’s a question of quantity, and timing, then: which means never before a major, i.e. presidential, election. So we’re in for a long build-up, my friends, and I’m afraid we here at are going to be busy in the months and years to come. There will be lots of pro-war narratives to deconstruct, and examine in the search for lessons in the art of bs-detection. Truly a task of Sisyphean proportions, but there you have it, it can’t be avoided. As the worst President in American history once said: Bring it on

I have to say, however, that the quality of war propaganda is really on the decline. The ones who were really good at it were the Brits, as Thomas E. Mahl showed in his 1998 book, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (a classic bit of scholarship taken up by the novelist Gore Vidal and dramatized in his The Golden Age). These days, we have only the crudities of the British tabloid press, and the Judy Miller clones presently working at the New York Times – just another sign of the general decline of quality in all things. As an aficionado of the genre – hey, it’s my job – I can say with some authority that they just don’t make war propaganda like they used to.  


A statement from someone who was once the most vehemently voluble and vitriolic advocate of invading Iraq in the entire blogosphere: 

"It seems to me that when analysts have a proven track record of being wrong, their next statement – in line with their previous demonstrably false take – should be viewed skeptically. Of course, in the MSM, it guarantees them a spot in the NYT." 

Andrew Sullivan

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].