May 04, 2008

Iran to Gordon to Present the Evidence

For a while now, Dr. iRack has been expecting MNF-I to provide a briefing describing Iranian lethal assisance to elements of JAM (frequently described as "special groups"). The briefing has not yet occurred, but the contours of the U.S. case are now clear and they are detailed in a new NYT article by Michael Gordon. The case rests on two central claims.

1. Old new news: The United States has long claimed that Tehran provides weapons to special groups. MNF-I believed that the low had been curtailed, based on Iranian assurances, last year. However, captured caches of weapons during recent fighting in Basra and Sadr City bear Iranian hallmarks and suggest that, despite Iranian promises to curtail the flow of arms, weapons are still coming across the border.

. . . American officials have provided to Iraqi officials . . . details of captured Iranian arms, like 81-millimeter mortars and 107-millimeter rockets that American officials say bear markings indicating that they were made this year. The weapons have a particular type of fuse and are painted in a way that American experts say is unique to Iran.

The Iraqi military also seized Iranian-made weapons with 2008 markings during their offensive last month in the southern port of Basra, according to American officials.

Now, Dr. iRack should point out, the existence of 2008 vintage Iranian weapons per se is not evidence of direct involvement by the Iranian government (or the Quds force), since they theoretically could have been sold on the black market. However, this is not the only pillar of the U.S. case . . .

2. Kinda new news: Based on the interrogation of four militia members trained in Iran, the Americans claim they now have evidence that Lebanese Hezbollah (itself an Iranian proxy) has trained Iraqi Shia militants in a camp near Tehran.

In a possible effort to be less obtrusive, it appears that Iran is now bringing small groups of Iraqi Shiite militants to camps in Iran, where they are taught how to do their own training, American officials say.

The militants then return to Iraq to teach comrades how to fire rockets and mortars, fight as snipers or assemble explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb made of Iranian components, according to American officials. The officials describe this approach as “training the trainers.”

The training, the Americans say, is carried out at several camps near Tehran that are overseen by the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Command, and the instruction is carried out by militants from Hezbollah, which has long been supported by the Quds Force. American officials say the Hezbollah militants perform several important roles for the Iranians.

First, they say, the Iranians believe it is useful to have Arabs train fellow Arabs. Second, Hezbollah has considerable experience in planning operations and using weapons and explosives in Lebanon.

According to American officials, the four Shiite militants who provided the information on Hezbollah’s role were captured between last September and December after they had returned from training in Iran. They were questioned individually and provided similar accounts, the American officials said.

The captured men described themselves in the accounts as part of a class of 16 militants who crossed into Iran from southern Iraq and were taken to a camp near Tehran, where they studied in a classroom and in the field. Some had been in Iran several times as part of a program that American officials said was aimed at turning them into “master trainers” and which could last several years.

Ah, "train the trainers" . . . John Nagl would be so proud. Hey John, at least the Iranians have been reading your stuff!

Anyway, this is not the first time the United States has accused Lebanese Hezbollah of training Shia militants in Iraq.

There have been earlier indications of Hezbollah involvement. Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah commander, was captured in Iraq in March 2007. At first he refused to talk, presumably to avoid giving away his Lebanese accent. As a consequence, he was initially dubbed Hamid the Mute by American officials.

According to American officials, Mr. Daqduq eventually acknowledged under questioning that he had come to Iraq to evaluate the performance of Shiite militias that the organization had played a role in training. He was making his fourth trip to Iraq when he was captured. After his detention, Hezbollah militants appear to be less visible in Iraq, American officials say.

Dr. iRack looks forward to Abu M, the real Lebannon expert in the crew, chiming in on the Hezbollah connection.

The last thing Dr. iRack will say is a gentle reminder to readers: this is the official U.S. case. Michael Gordon is a good reporter, but he is highly reliant on high-level official (anonymous) sources for stories like this. As one of Dr. iRack's trusted friends points out, Gordon "is in essence repeating a narrative that was given to him." In other words, none of this is "independent" of the information that MNF-I is likely to provide--it is the information that MNF-I is likely to provide. The danger in stories like this is the risk of creating an echo chamber that produces the illusion of outside corroboration for administration claims when they do no such thing. Instead, stories like this should be viewed as narrative "shaping" operations. Moreover, it is worth remembering that Michael Gordon has a track record here of uncritically parroting administration positions. After all, this is the same Gordon who penned many stories with his colleague Judy Miller on Iraqi WMD based on anonymous official sources--stories that were then cited as corroborating evidence by senior U.S. officials who, it turned out, were the conduits for the information in the first place.

In this instance, I suspect that MNF-I's claims--via Gordon--about Iranian involvement are (at least mostly) true, but we should reserve at least a bit of critical judgement, and closely scrutinize the evidence once it is released.

And, of course, the "truthiness" of the claims nothwithstanding, what we should do about it is not self-evident. If the evidence is used to strengthen tough diplomacy, Dr. iRack is all for it. If it is used to justify strikes on training camps in Iran? Not so much.

Update: The Washington Post also covers this story, sourcing it from Iraqi officials. This tidbit (which one of Dr. iRack's buddies noted) is interesting:

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called reporters late Sunday night to clarify remarks he made at a news conference earlier in the day, when he appeared to say that there was no hard evidence that Iran was allowing weapons to come into Iraq. Dabbagh said his comments had been misinterpreted.

"There is an interference and evidence that they have interfered in Iraqi affairs," Dabbagh said in an interview arranged by a U.S. official. When asked how he would characterize the proof that Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq, he said: "It is a concrete evidence." (emphasis added)

Update II: The London Times reports that the United States is drawing up plans to strike training camps inside Iran.

The US military is drawing up plans for a “surgical strike” against an insurgent training camp inside Iran if Republican Guards continue with attempts to destabilise Iraq, western intelligence sources said last week. One source said the Americans were growing increasingly angry at the involvement of the Guards’ special-operations Quds force inside Iraq, training Shi’ite militias and smuggling weapons into the country.

Despite a belligerent stance by Vice-President Dick Cheney, the administration has put plans for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities on the back burner since Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary in 2006, the sources said.

However, US commanders are increasingly concerned by Iranian interference in Iraq and are determined that recent successes by joint Iraqi and US forces in the southern port city of Basra should not be reversed by the Quds Force.

“If the situation in Basra goes back to what it was like before, America is likely to blame Iran and carry out a surgical strike on a militant training camp across the border in Khuzestan,” said one source, referring to a frontier province.

Dr. iRack suspects that this clearly-official "leak" is aimed at generating leverage in the context of coercive diplomacy with Iran. Maybe it will work. Let's hope it does. But carrying out this threat is a bad idea. It is unlikely to have much direct affect on Quds force capabilities or behavior, and it would likely escalate the crisis greatly by putting Iranian prestiege on the line. As the same article notes, the same officials leaking this contingency "acknowledged Iran was unlikely to cease involvement in Iraq and that, however limited a US attack might be, the fighting could escalate." Moreover, even a limited strike risks rallying many average Iranians behind the regime in defense of the country's sovereignty.

Update III: A friend passed along this piece from the Boston Globe. Apparently, the ex-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has come out and publically declared that fomenting violence abroad is "treason."

A former Iranian president has said that exporting violence to other countries is "treason" against Islam and Iran's 1979 revolution, an apparent accusation that the country's hard-line rulers are engineering unrest abroad.

Mohammad Khatami, a reformist and popular intellectual, made no mention of U.S. and Iraqi accusations that Iran is arming and training Shiite extremists in neighboring Iraq. But he said Iran should avoid actions that give it a bad image.

Engineering violence in other countries would be contrary to the goals of the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khatami said.

"What did Imam (Khomeini) want and what did he mean by 'exporting the revolution'? Taking up arms and causing explosions in other countries and establishing groups to carry out sabotage in other countries? Imam was strongly opposed to these behaviors," Khatami told students in northern Iran on Friday.

"This is the biggest treason to Islam and the revolution."

Khatami's remarks were published by the daily Kargozaran Saturday and also posted on the Web site of a pro-democracy foundation he heads.

We'll have to wait to see if this is criticism of the regime in Tehran or a subtle message from the regime (using a well know moderate as conduit) that it is ready to compromise.

Update IV: The drumbeat for strikes on Iran becomes even louder on--surprise, surprise--the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. Foud Ajami, a major advocate of the war in Iraq (what he calls "the Iraq project") writes:

The leaders who oversee the American project in Iraq now see Iran as the principal threat to our success there. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a diplomat with a thorough knowledge of the region, has spoken of an Iranian attempt to "Lebanonize" Iraq – to subvert the country through the use of proxies.

In Iraq, the Iranians have been able to dial up the violence and dial it down, to make promises of cooperation to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki while supplying Shiite extremists with weapons and logistical support. "Lebanonization" may be an exaggerated fear, because Iraq is much larger and wealthier than Lebanon, and more jealous of its own sovereignty. But the low-level warfare against American soldiers by Shiite groups – aided and abetted by Iran – may be responsible for hundreds of American deaths.

The hope entertained a year or so ago, that Iran would refrain from playing with fire in Iraq, has shown to be wishful thinking. Iran's nuclear ambitions are of a wholly different magnitude. But before we tackle that Persian menace, the Iranian theocrats will have to be shown that there is a price for their transgressions.