WASHINGTON – U.S. officials from President Bush to a top general in Iraq said Wednesday that there was no solid evidence that top officials in Iran had ordered deadly weapons to be sent to Iraq for use against American soldiers, backing away from claims made at a Baghdad presentation by military and intelligence officials earlier this week.
The questioning at a news conference Wednesday may be an indication that the specter of the war in Iraq – a war the Bush administration once denied it was planning, supported by evidence that turned out to be false – looms large over administration policy toward Iran.
Critics in recent days have accused the administration of overstating claims of official Iranian involvement in Iraq’s violence.
Still, Bush on Wednesday continued to maintain an aggressive posture toward Tehran, the Iranian capital, insisting that elite Iranian Quds Force operatives were supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq.
“What we don’t know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did,” he said.
“What matters is that they’re there,” he said, asking: “What’s worse: that the government knew or that the government didn’t know?”
Bush then issued a threat that held the possibility of a direct clash with Iranian units. “When we find the networks that are enabling these weapons to end up in Iraq,” he said at a late morning White House news conference, “we will deal with them.”
Quds is a special forces unit of the Revolutionary Guard, which is a separate force from Iran’s military, created to safeguard and spread the 1979 revolution that established Shiite clerical rule in Iran.
Skeptical members of Congress have questioned administration charges of Tehran’s support for Iraqi insurgents and Bush’s insistence that his plans for dealing with Iran remain purely diplomatic. The administration itself, conscious of its low credibility, believes it has gone out of its way to convince doubters that Iran is not Iraq all over again.
“No, no, no, no,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday in response to questions about whether the administration embellished evidence against Iran in a U.S. military briefing in Baghdad the previous day. “I’m almost ready to hit my head on the microphone.”
Much as the Vietnam Syndrome dogged the foreign and military policies of a generation of U.S. presidents, the Iraq Syndrome has become an ever-present undercurrent in Washington. “Everyone is reliving the whole thing again in everything we do,” said one administration official, referring to the tumultuous months surrounding the March 2003 U.S. invasion.
“In the old days, if the U.S. government had come out and said ‘We’ve got this, here’s our assessment,’ reasonable people would have taken it at face value,” the official said of the Baghdad briefing. “That’s never going to happen again.”
On Sunday, U.S. officials in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity alleged that Iranian officials at the “highest levels” of the government in Tehran, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were behind the smuggling of a deadly type of explosive devices used against U.S. forces in Iraq.
But during news conferences in Washington and Baghdad on Wednesday, Bush and Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, appeared to step back from that claim, just as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace did in an overseas interview earlier this week.
Caldwell characterized the recent statements about Iranian weapons in Iraq as a diplomatic endeavor to convince Iranians to stop the flow of such weapons.
“We want to tell (the Iranians), ‘You need to stop,’ ” he said. “We need your assistance.”
As questions that have peppered senior officials all week suggest, what matters in the post-Iraq invasion era is whether the administration can prove that Iran provided weapons to Iraq.
The bottom line for many congressional Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans was reflected Tuesday by Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., during the House debate on the Iraq war. “The president said Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al-Qaida terrorists,” Etheridge said. “I took the president at his word.”
Burdened by its troubles in Iraq, the Bush administration now is being doubly scrutinized over its policy toward Tehran. For weeks, despite occasional saber-rattling, officials from the president on down have insisted there are no plans to attack Iran. Instead, they have said they are fully committed to a peaceful resolution of all outstanding grievances, including Iran’s nuclear activities, support for terrorists in Lebanon and insurgents in Iraq.
“We’ve been very careful in what we’ve said over the last few weeks,” Undersecretary of State and Iran point man Nicholas Burns said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution.
Asked about the “highest levels” charge, Burns replied, “The president … did not claim that today. We are not claiming that today.”
But that was precisely what the military claimed in its Baghdad briefing for reporters Sunday, a secretive session in which no cameras or tape recorders were allowed and no names were given for the speakers.
The charge was that Tehran’s operatives were supplying sophisticated explosive devices to Iraqi Shiites who are killing U.S. troops. Proof was laid out on a table: Iranian-made weapons and copies of false identity cards found on captured agents said to be members of the Quds Force.
“The Quds Force,” a senior defense analyst then explained, “on paper reports to the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In reality, they really report directly to the supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “So the activities that the IRGC Quds Force are conducting in Iraq, we assess, are coming from the highest levels of the Iranian government.”