May 09, 2008

Sometimes, It's What You Don't Say

On May 5, John Bolton, a former influential hawk within the Bush administration and a current crazy person, called on the United States to immediately bomb Iranian/Hizbollah camps allegedly training Iraqi Shia militants in Iran. According to Bolton: “This is a case where the use of military force against a training camp to show the Iranians we’re not going to tolerate this is really the most prudent thing to do. Then the ball would be in Iran’s court to draw the appropriate lesson to stop harming our troops.” Dr. iRack thinks this is the very definition of a stupid idea--the substitution of brawn for brains. A limited strike would accomplish nothing in-and-of-itself (except a momentary catharsis), and it would likely push Iranian hard-liners into a corner (and produce a "rally around the flag" effect) that would escalate the conflict further. Yet despite the apparent irrationality of such strikes, there have been ominous signs in recent weeks that the administration might be moving in this direction. (Indeed, it is worth noting that Bolton's comments were made on the same day that the administration made its case against Iran/Hizbollah activities in Iraq via Michael Gordon's column in the NYT).

But, suddenly, the tone might be changing. Tina Susman has a new post over at Babylon & Beyond noting that, in his most recent press conference, MG Keven Bergner, the MNF-I spokesman, talked at length about the extensive weapons caches discovered during fighting with JAM in Basra and Karbala. Yet "Iran" was not mentioned once. Not once.

Not once did Bergner point the finger at Iran for any of these weapons and munitions, which is a striking change from just a couple of weeks ago when U.S. military officials here and at the Pentagon were saying that caches found in Basra in particular had revealed Iranian-made arms manufactured as recently as this year. They say the majority of rockets being fired at U.S. bases, including Baghdad's Green Zone, are launched by militiamen receiving training, arms and other aid from Iran.

[. . . ]

Iraqi officials also have accused Iran of meddling in violence and had echoed the U.S. accusations of new Iranian-made arms being found in Basra. But neither the United States nor Iraq has displayed any of the alleged arms to the public or press, and lately it is looking less likely they will. U.S. military officials said it was up to the Iraqis to show the items; Iraqi officials lately have backed off the accusations against Iran.

The full text of Bergner's press conference can be read here.

In this case, MNF-I's silence may be meaningful, representing at least a temporary attempt to ratchet down tensions. It follows closely on the heels of a decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form an investigating commission to examine evidence of Tehran's military support to Shia militias. That step may also be an attempt to buy time for de-escalation before things get out of hand between the United States and Iran. (Some reports suggest that Maliki's closest government coalition partner Abdul Azziz al-Hakim, whose ISCI party has longstanding ties to Iran, pushed Maliki to name the commission.)

Dr. iRack hopes that cooler heads have prevailed (either in Washington/Baghdad or Tehran, or both) and that quiet diplomacy is ongoing (or will soon start) behind the scenes to head-off a direct military confrontation and gain Iranian commitments to curtail lethal assistance to Shia militants in Iraq. Stay tuned.

Update: Kevin Drum also links the Susman post, but he seems to draw the inference that Bergner is silent on Iran because MNF-I doesn't have the goods. Maybe, but Dr. iRack has spoken to enough insiders in the know who say MNF-I thinks they do have the goods. Rather I think MNF-I's silence means something else. Whether or not Iran is actually providing lethal aid to JAMsters, not talking about it is useful tactically if (and it's a big if) the hope is to buy some time to lower tensions. We'll see.

Update II: A few interesting posts over at the American Conservative blog, including this one from Philip Giraldi (ex-CIA) claiming RUMINT that the "National Security Council has agreed in principle to proceed with plans to attack an Iranian al-Qods-run camp that is believed to be training Iraqi militants" (hat tip to Patrick in the comments stream). Another post by Dennis Dale on the same blog takes a more cynical (and, in Dr. iRack's view, a slightly wacky, overly-conspiratorial) view of Bergner's silence on Iran at his most recent press conference.