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The US Media Got it Wrong on Iranian Involvement in Iraq

John on October 26, 2010 at 9:01 am

With the release last week of another cache of classified documents via Wikileaks, we’ve learned a few things about the war in Iraq. One of the highlights, if it can be called that, is just how heavily involved Iran was in a proxy war against the US forces in Iraq. The NY Times covered it in a front page story Saturday:

During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran’s role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.

But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the American military…

Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, “explosively formed penetrators,” or E.F.P.’s, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include powerful .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a portable Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, according to the reports, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in east Baghdad in July 2007.

In short, the new leak is replete with evidence of Iran’s role. But notice the first sentence above. It says that “critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran’s role.” Who were these critics, the ones who got it so wrong? They were legion, but some of the most high profile critics could be found in the media’s ranks, including at the editorial board of the NY Times.

To fully appreciate this story, you need a bit of context. Starting in mid-2006, EFP attacks on coalition forces started to rise. By the end of the year, the NY Times reported that in all of Iraq excluding Anbar, EFPs were responsible for 30% of coalition deaths. It is widely understood these EFPs are being supplied by Iran, yet in December 2006 Time magazine publishes a piece highlighting Iran’s positive response to the Baker-Hamilton plan and claiming that Iran is really and truly concerned about stability in Iraq:

Iran is…increasingly concerned about the need to stabilize Iraq, say TIME’s sources, in contrast to U.S. charges that Tehran is fueling instability there. The sources indicate that Iranian officials essentially agree with the Baker-Hamilton conclusion that while Iran gains an advantage from having the U.S. mired in Iraq, its long-term interests are not served by Iraqi chaos and territorial disintegration. “Iran would love to see the situation stabilized in Iraq,” says a source. “That is a very important concern for Iran. But Iran doesn’t want to see the U.S. declare victory, in case the Americans would like to attack Iran next.”

Less than two weeks after Time publishes this Iranian call for stabilization, American forces raid the compound of a Shia leader in Iraq and discover he is harboring the #3 man in Iran’s revolutionary guard. The Washington Post reported what this Iranian General had on him at the time:

detailed weapons lists, documents pertaining to shipments of weapons into Iraq, organizational charts, telephone records and maps, among other sensitive intelligence information. Officials were particularly concerned by the fact that the Iranians had information about importing modern, specially shaped explosive charges into Iraq, weapons that have been used in roadside bombs to target U.S. military armored vehicles.

President Bush went public with the scope of Iran’s activity in Iraq on January 10, 2007. That very night, soldiers in Iraq raided an Iranian consular office in Irbil and detained five individuals, all of them Iranian agents tied to the Revolutionary Guard. Meanwhile, on MSNBC, Chris Matthews was hounding Tony Snow with the suggestion that President Bush was starting a “drumbeat” for an “extra-constitutional” war against Iran:

My concern is we‘re going to see a ginning-up situation whereby we follow in hot pursuit any efforts by the Iranians to interfere with Iraq. We take a couple shots at them, they react. Then we bomb the hell out of them and hit their nuclear installations without any action by Congress. That‘s the scenario I fear, an extra-constitutional war is what I‘m worried about. [Emphasis added]

Notice there’s no real concern about Iran’s actions in Iraq, just about what the US might do in response. Keeping with the focus on the US as the real problem, the next day Juan Cole wrote a story for Salon about the Irbil raid headlined “Did the US just provoke Iran?“:

For months, rumors of war between the United States and Iran have been building. Many fear that President Bush is spoiling for a fight, and they’ve begun to interpret various developments in the region as the run-up to an attack on Tehran…President Bush’s speech on Wednesday night only stoked such speculation…he rattled sabers at Iran with some ferocity, accusing it of arming insurgents in Iraq and threatening it with international isolation…

if Bush were to escalate the regional conflict and try to involve Iran, the assault on the Iranian consulate in Irbil suggests the ways in which he would justify his actions. He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have begun speaking, without presenting any evidence, of Iranian aid to groups killing U.S. troops in Iraq — hence the reference to “networks” in his Wednesday speech. [emphasis added]

The suggestion is clear. This is Bush belligerence sans evidence.

One week after Cole’s analysis appeared on Salon, a group of 12 Iranians belonging to Quds Force, a division of the Revolutionary Guard, raided a US compound in Karbala and kidnapped 5 soldiers. This is, perhaps not coincidentally, the same number detained by the US in the Irbil raid. All five of the kidnapped men are later found dead. Apparently, undeterred, Juan Cole writes a follow up for Salon titled “The Danger of Bush’s anti-Iran fatwa”. Again, the focus is on Washington, not Tehran:

maybe the spark for a wider conflict is just what the increasingly desperate President Bush seeks. His fixation on Iranian activities in Iraq cannot be explained by his cover story, which is that Tehran is supplying weapons to forces that kill U.S. troops. To date, no hard evidence that the Iranian government is sending high-powered weaponry into Iraq has been made public, and no credible proof may be forthcoming. In general, one should take such claims with a large grain of salt…

The Bush administration may also be casting about for some issue that will galvanize the American public and give it a pretext to expand its presence in Iraq despite how badly the war has gone. Any leaders of a failing war effort are always tempted by a strategy of escalation. Announcing open hunting season on all Iranian visitors to Iraq is like playing Frisbee with nitroglycerin. Bush has gone looking for trouble and is likely to find it.

Two days after Cole’s attack on the Bush administration’s motives, the NY Times published an editorial that reads like a slightly more nuanced follow up. It’s titled Bullying Iran:

We have no doubt about Iran’s malign intent, just as we have no doubt that Mr. Bush’s serial failures in Iraq have made it far easier for Tehran to sow chaos there and spread its influence in the wider region. But more threats and posturing are unlikely to get Iran to back down. If Mr. Bush isn’t careful, he could end up talking himself into another disastrous war, and if Congress is not clear in opposing him this time, he could drag the country along.

The drumbeat began during Mr. Bush’s recent speech on Iraq, when he vowed to “seek out and destroy” Iranian and Syrian networks he said were arming and training anti-American forces…

Mr. Bush’s bullying may play well to his ever shrinking base. But his disastrous war in Iraq has done so much damage to America’s credibility — and so strained its resources — that it no longer frightens America’s enemies. The only ones really frightened are Americans and America’s friends.

Again, its impossible to mistake the tone for anything but a suggestion that Bush is an irresponsible cowboy. I think it’s probably safe to conclude that the Iranian mullahs applauded that editorial, even as they continued sending bombs, rifles and money across the border to kill our soldiers.

The Bush administration noticed the narrative that was being constructed at the time. Press Secretary Tony Snow told the AP in February:

I don’t think there’s a change of tone on our part,” Snow said. “I think that there have been attempts, with all due respect, in the press to try to whip this up — is the administration going after Iran.”

“This is providing — presenting evidence to the effect that there’s been the shipment of weaponry, lethal weaponry into Iraq, some of it of Iranian providence,” Snow added. “And this is something that we think if the president of Iran wants to put a stop to it, we wish him luck and hope he’ll do it real soon.”

And to be fair, not everyone in the MSM followed the US as villain story line. One excellent exception, which looks even better in light of recent evidence, is this 2007 interview Diane Sawyer did with President Ahmedinejad:

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But the fact remains that many in the media seemed eager to either downplay what Iran was doing in Iraq or even suggest the story was an intentional US provocation. As we now know, that wasn’t the case. Iran was involved in a serious effort to oppose the US in Iraq and this fact was neither invented, nor exaggerated.

[For a much more detailed account of Iran's proxy war with the US in Iraq, please visit my detailed and carefully sourced Timeline of events covering 2003 to mid 2007.]

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Category: Foreign Affairs |

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