Monday, February 12, 2007

The Iran connection under the microscope

Bush administration finally released its dossier on Iranian involvement in Iraq over last weekend. First of all, I'm not exactly won over by the incredibly tight circumstances under which this information was briefed. According to the Post's report assembled by Joshua Partlow (with help from Dafna Linzer and Naseer Mehdawi):

The officials said they would speak only on the condition of anonymity, so the explosives expert and the analyst, who would normally not speak to the news media, could provide information directly. The analyst's exact title and full name were not revealed to reporters. The officials released a PowerPoint presentation including photographs of the weaponry, but did not allow media representatives to record, photograph or videotape the briefing or the materials on display.

Nameless experts and a "no-fingerprints" brief? As a professional skeptic and a libertarian, I am already a little dubious about what will follow. Despite my uneasy feelings, Partlow definitely picked up some interest bits of information:

The U.S. officials said weapons were smuggled into the country by the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that U.S. officials believe is under the control of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The officials in Baghdad said that Iranians recently detained in Iraq by U.S. forces belong to the Quds Force.

I'll buy this much. Veteran Near East-watchers know that the Quds Force was a key element of Revolutionary Guard's efforts to infiltrate Iraq during the 1980-1988 war between the two states. It wouldn't surprise me if they've managed to revive some previously dormant contacts or back-channels.

With so much official U.S. buildup about the purported evidence of Iranian influence in Iraq, the briefing was also notable for what was not said or shown. The officials offered no evidence to substantiate allegations that the "highest levels" of the Iranian government had sanctioned support for attacks against U.S. troops. Also, the military briefers were not joined by U.S. diplomats or representatives of the CIA or the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Nothing new here.

U.S. military officials in Iraq had previously described the use of "explosively shaped charges" to target vehicles, but Sunday's briefing was the first time they displayed pieces of what they called an "explosively formed penetrator" or EFP. The one such device shown at the briefing was a cylinder of PVC pipe about eight inches long and about six inches in diameter. The officials said the devices are deadly because the explosion sends a slug of malleable metal, often copper, at velocities high enough to penetrate the armor of tanks and Humvees. Their components require precision machining that Iraq has shown no evidence of being able to perform, the officials said. The first known attack using such weapons in Iraq occurred in May 2004, and the rate of attacks using them has nearly doubled in 2006, the officials said. They have also been used in southern Lebanon, the explosives expert said. The Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah receives military support from Iran.

Now we're getting to the good stuff. For the sake of argument, I'm willing to accept the assertion that the shaped charges used in many of the EFPs going off in Iraq are from abroad. The HMX, RDX, and TNT blends typically used in EFPs aren't exactly easy to produce in large quantities outside of a factory setting though. I doubt few of Iraq's Saddam-era munitions factories are still operational after the initial U.S. invasion and four years of looting and neglect.

The weapons displayed for reporters on two tables on Sunday -- rocket-propelled grenades, football-shaped mortar shells, the shaped explosive charge and about 40 tail fins of exploded mortar shells -- showed specific signs of Iranian manufacture, the officials said. The mortar tail fins, for example, were made from a single fused piece of metal, while other countries make mortar shells that have removable parts, the explosives expert said. Two rocket-propelled grenades, with the markings "P.G. 7-AT-1," were said to be made exclusively in Iran.

I'm not a mortars person, so I can't comment on their "signs of Iranian manufacture" claim. Based on the markings provided, I bet the rocket-propelled grenade round went to an RPG-7 - the ubiquitous "Libyan terrorist popping out of the roof of a VW Bus from Back to the Future" Soviet-designed RPG. The Iranians can probably manufacture this icon of Third World weaponry, but they are far from the only potential source in the Near East.

In conclusion, this dossier may have some tantilizing evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq, but given the Bush administration's low credibility, it will mean little until the public has a chance to assess it.

Update: Some intrepid McClatchy/Knight-Ridder reporter managed to get his/her hands on the Powerpoint presentation. There is definitely Farsi writing on the package of TNT on the 10th slide. The last slide is supposedly a Misagh-1 (a knock-off of the Chinese Vanguard), but there is not way to tell from the photo. There are lots of circles around the manufacture dates - most of which are from 2006. Does that essentially help the American case that Iran has been involved in Iraqi violence going back 2-3 years?


J. said...

This is the brief that said 170 Americans were killed by EFPs? So how did the other 3000 die (rhetorical question)?

Seriously, I still have to say that this doesn't matter to the source of the issue. During the Korean War, we knew that China supplied NK with arms. During the Vietnam war, we knew that the Soviets supplied NV with arms. We didn't attack either nation through political or military efforts. Why should Iran be different?

Stop the insurgents, the arms dry up. Attacking the source of the arms will not stop the insurgency - but it will enflame the Middle East against the United States.

Robot Economist said...

J - That's largely the way I see it. There is violence and a general lack of public security in Iraq, so naturally there is huge demand for munitions.

Those munitions are likely to come from the closest and most convenient sources. Therefore, it isn't surprising to see Iranian munitions (among others) turn up in Iraq.

The Bush administration may have grounds to charge complicity with black market arms deals on the part of the Iranian government, but that is pretty weak. We turn a blind eye to Egyptian or Israeli weapons proliferation.

A.E. said...

"Seriously, I still have to say that this doesn't matter to the source of the issue. During the Korean War, we knew that China supplied NK with arms. During the Vietnam war, we knew that the Soviets supplied NV with arms. We didn't attack either nation through political or military efforts. Why should Iran be different?"

This is a salient point. Assuming that Iran is the main supplier, it still doesn't justify an attack that will likely be a strategic and political failure.