On January 29, 2002, President Bush gave his State of the Union speech featuring the now infamous formulation "axis of evil" contrived by speechwriter and Richard Perle cohort David Frum. (Frum currently writes a regular column for the extreme rightwing National Review, arguing among other things that Iran is supporting al-Qaeda-related Iraqi Sunni groups.) Iran was of course included in that "axis" alongside Saddam's Iraq and North Korea. The conceptual sloppiness of the phrase puzzled world leaders, while its bizarre linkage of dissimilar regimes alarmed mainstream scholarship. But for mass consumption it successfully conflated disparate targets and vaguely associated Iran with the Evil represented by the 9-11 attacks.
On August 14, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (led by the armed Iranian dissident movement Mujahedin-E-Khalq or MEK) held a press conference in Washington D.C. and announced that Iran was constructing a secret nuclear facility near the city of Natanz. The MEK had long been (and still is) listed as a "terrorist" organization by the State Department, and had been under the protection of Saddam Hussein's regime since the 1980s although disarmed by US forces following the Iraq invasion. But the Bush administration seized upon the report (while Cheney and the neocons pressed for a reconsideration of MEK's status). In February 2003 the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the Natanz site, finding centrifuge machines. Iran declared that the facility was part of a civilian nuclear energy program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticized Iran for concealing this and other nuclear facilities and demanded that Iran submit to rigorous inspections of its nuclear sites. In December Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program and allowed such inspections, which have not to this day produced evidence for a nuclear weapons program. But the concealment in violation of IAEA rules (by no means unprecedented among Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories, such as close US ally South Korea) was presented by the US administration as virtual proof for an illegal nuclear weapons program.
From this point the disinformation campaign against Iran got underway in earnest. In April Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Curt Weldon, vice-chair of the Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committees, met with a certain "Ali" in Paris who informed him that Iranian agents had stolen enriched uranium from Iraq before the US invasion. (Iran-Contra figure and Weekly Standard neocon propagandist Michael Ledeen, fresh from his work with Donald Feith's Office of Special Plans, also dispensed this "intelligence.") This "Ali" was identified by American Prospect reporters Laura Rozen and Jeet Heer in April 2005 as Fereidoun Mahdavi, former minister of commerce in the government of the Shah of Iran and business partner of Manucher Ghorbanifar. (Ghorbanifar and Ledeen were old friends and had met in Rome in December 2001 with Farsi-speaking Defense Department officials Larry Franklin, Harold Rhode and Iranian dissidents to discuss regime change in Iran.)
"Ali" also told Weldon that Iranian-supported terrorists were plotting to fly a hijacked Canadian airliner into the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station outside of Boston, and that Iran was hiding Osama bin Laden. The congressman laid it all out in his 2005 book Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information that Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America . . . and How the CIA Has Ignored It. The CIA for its part has interviewed Mahdavi and determined that he, like his buddy Ghorbanifar long fingered as a charlatan by the Agency, is a liar. (Weldon's book in any case has apparently sold well and gets rave reviews on Amazon.com.)
In May 2003, soon after Weldon and Ledeen channeling Ghorbanifar began to disseminate such charges, al-Qaeda operatives bombed a foreigners' compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing 26 people including 9 Americans. Unnamed US officials were quick to allege that the operatives had taken refuge in Iran, or had been directed from Iran. CBS News correspondent David Martin reported that such officials "say they have evidence the bombings in Saudi Arabia and other attacks still in the works were planned and directed by senior al Qaeda operatives who have found safe haven in Iran." So here was another supposed Iran-al Qaeda link. It was given relatively little attention at the time but could be resurrected in the future.
(This occurred during the same month that Iran faxed a letter to the State Department, via the Swiss ambassador to Iran, offering "full transparency" on its nuclear enrichment program, cooperative measures on terrorism, cooperation in establishing a stable democratic Iraq, and acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The offer, welcomed by the State Department, was rejected out of hand by Cheney's office and only made public last year by Colin Powell's former chief of state Lawrence Wilkerson.)
On August 26, the IAEA reported it had found highly enriched uranium particles at Natanz. Iran insisted that the particles had come with imported centrifuges, an explanation the IAEA later confirmed. The existence of the particles hardly strengthened the case that Iran had a military nuclear program, but was used to encourage anxiety abut that possibility.
By early 2004, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia had emerged as a major challenge to the US occupation in Baghdad and the southern part of Iraq. Right-wing journalists and neocons close to the administration increasingly alleged that al-Sadr was working closely with Tehran. In April, Rowan Scarborough citing "military sources" wrote in the Unification Church-owned Washington Times that al-Sadr "is being aided directly by Iran's Revolutionary Guard and by Hezbollah, an Iranian-created terrorist group based in Lebanon." The Wall Street Journal's editors declared that the "Mahdi militia is almost certainly financed and trained by Iranians," adding, "Revolutionary Guards may be instigating some of the current unrest." The New York Times citing "Pentagon officials" reported the same thing, although Times reporter James Risen acknowledged that "some intelligence officials believe that the Pentagon has been eager to link Hezbollah to the violence in Iraq to link the Iranian regime more closely to anti-American terrorism." Critics pointed out that the Iranian mullahs were in fact closer to the leaders of the SCIRI and Dawa parties working with the occupation forces than with al-Sadr, whose Shiite religious solidarity with Iran is conditioned by Iraqi nationalism and pan-Arabism.
In June, the long-awaited 9-11 Commission Report was released. It stated that "Iran does not have long-standing ties to al-Qaeda" but made several claims about cooperation between the two. It linked Iran to Saudi Hezbollah, which carried out the1996 attack on the Khobar Towers residential complex in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans, adding that "there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown."
"In late 1991 or 1992," according to the report, " discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support -- even if only training -- for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. . . The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations."
The report claimed without evidence that there were "strong indications that elements of both the Pakistani and Iranian governments frequently turned a blind eye" to the transit through their countries of al-Qaeda members prior to the 11 September 2001 attacks. It cited "detainees" as describing "the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan. For example, Iranian border inspectors would be told not to place telltale stamps in the passports of these travelers. Such arrangements were particularly beneficial to Saudi members of al Qaeda. . . In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers." But the evidence for Iranian "willingness" to assist known al-Qaeda operatives seems very skimpy here; Iran almost went to war with al-Qaeda's host Afghanistan in 1999. The report does state, "We have found no evidence that Iran. . . .was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack."
The report indicated that some al-Qaeda members had found sanctuary in Iran. Iranian authorities replied that the only known al-Qaeda operatives in Iran were in prison awaiting trial. Serious intelligence scholars doubted whether the ferociously anti-Shiite al-Qaeda would receive any assistance from the Iranian government and noted Iran's cooperation with the US in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But any effort to link al-Qaeda and Iran includes reference to this report.
In August 2004 CBS News revealed that the FBI was investigating a spy for Israel within the Defense Department, working under Donald Feith. The spy, later revealed to be Larry Franklin, had passed on classified information regarding Iran to senior officials of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). (In January 2006 he was convicted of passing classified information to AIPAC and sentenced to over 12 years in prison.) Franklin had in December 2001, as noted above, met to discuss regime change in Iran with Ledeen, Rhodes, and Ghorbanifar in Rome. His bust may have set back neocon efforts, coordinated with Israeli friends, to engineer an attack on Iran.
In this context President Bush, interviewed by Bill O'Reilly on Fox News September 27, 2004 declared that he would never let Iran acquire nuclear weapons and that "all options are on the table."
Following that remark, in January 2005, powerful hawks in the House of Representatives sponsored the "Iran Freedom Support Act" endorsing "a transition to democracy in Iran." A similar version was introduced in the Senate and the joint bill was passed in September 2006. (Ironically, Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State and key aide to Colin Powell, had in February 2003 referred to Iran as a democracy, based on the fact that the country holds competitive elections. The neocons had castigated him for the remark, although the State Department officially stood by it.)
On January 20 Vice President Cheney declared that Iran is "right at the top of the list" of global "trouble spots" adding, "given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards." Here the Bush administration was directly linking Iran's supposed military nuclear program with the survival of Israel -- a significant escalation of the rhetoric.
The Iranians, Cheney argued, "are already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy." This was a remarkably dishonest statement coming from a man who had been an official in the Ford Administration which had in fact encouraged the Shah of Iran in the 1970s to develop a peaceful nuclear program. The Iranians plausibly argue that their fossil fuel reserves are finite, and more valuable as a source of foreign exchange than domestic use, while nuclear power is cleaner. But the argument that Iran can only be building reactors and enriching plutonium for military purposes is useful in its very simplicity.
On June 24 Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran. The mainstream news media immediately publicized various allegations against him, including the charge that he was deeply involved in the 1979-81 Iran Hostage Crisis. The Washington Times quoted one of the former hostages, Col. Charles Scott (then 73) as stating, "He was one of the top two or three leaders; the new president of Iran is a terrorist." The MEK produced a 1979 photograph of a young man resembling Ahmadinejad with an American hostage at the US embassy, which was quickly published by news agencies such as AP, Reuters and AFP alongside reportage on the Iranian election.
Iranian sources identified the youth as one Taghi Mohammadi, while the Los Angeles Times quoted a "US official familiar with the investigation of Ahmadinejad's role" as saying that analysts had found "serious discrepancies" between the person in the photo and images of Ahmadinejad, including differences in facial structure and height. Still, the State Department has made no official statement disputing the claim made by Scott and several other former hostages.
Another piece of likely disinformation was revealed in mid-July when senior (unnamed) US intelligence officials summoned IAEA leaders to the top of a Vienna skyscraper. There they revealed materials supposedly downloaded from a stolen Iranian laptop computer revealing a protracted attempt by the Iranians to design a nuclear warhead. The IAEA was not convinced; "The information did not seem conclusive, the 'smoking gun,'" one person in attendance told Reuters in November. "No one has augmented this data since, and we are in no position to know whether the data indeed came from the Iranians." But the story was prominently covered in the US press.
On August 23, the Subcommittee on Intelligence Policy of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report describing Iran's nuclear program as a strategic threat to the US In a rare move, the IAEA denounced the report in a letter September 13 to committee chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan). The report, the IAEA declared, contained "erroneous, misleading, and unsubstantiated information." In particular the IAEA refuted the assertion that Iran was enriching uranium to weapons grade.
In September, following months of pressure from US UN Ambassador Bolton, the IAEA issued a report on Iran, declaring it in "non-compliance" with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It stated that the "history of concealment of Iran's nuclear activities" and "resulting absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes have given rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council." The statement was actually opposed by 13 of the 35 voting countries (including such key international players as Russia, China, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela and South Africa) but backed by NATO country representatives voting as a bloc. This was used to produce UNSC Resolution 1737, which while affirming the right of Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories "to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination," contradictorily "decides" that "Iran shall without further delay suspend . . . all [uranium] enrichment-related and reprocessing activities." The US intention here was to have the Security Council adopt a resolution condemning Iran's nuclear program and imposing sanctions. This was indeed achieved July 31, 2006.
In October, British ambassador to Iraq William Patey told reporters in London that Iran had been supplying technology used to kill British troops in Basra. There was no real evidence of Iranian government involvement, but the charge that Coalition forces are dying because of "explosively formed perpetrators" (EFP) manufactured in Iran has of course been echoed by Bush administration officials in recent weeks.
On October 26, Ahmadinejad gave a speech in which he quoted Ayatollah Khomeini (who died in 1989) as saying that "the occupation of Jerusalem" will be "erased from the page of time." Ahmadinejad used the quote in a speech noting that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union itself, and the regime of Saddam Hussein all ended in time, as he maintained the Israeli occupation of one of Islam's holiest cities would too. The statement has been incessantly misquoted in the US and global press as a statement that Tehran plans to "wipe Israel off the map." One Iranian writer calls it "the rumor of the century." Certainly it's central to the whole disinformation program.
In May 2006, Laura Rozen reported in the Los Angeles Times that the Office of Special Plans had been reincarnated as the "Iranian Directorate" at the Pentagon, once again under Abram Shulsky and now reporting to none other than Elizabeth Cheney, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and daughter of the Vice President. In the same month Canada's National Post published a story alleging that the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) had passed a law establishing "separate dress codes for religious minorities, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who will have to adopt distinct colour schemes to make them identifiable in public. The new codes would enable Muslims to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake, and thus becoming najis (unclean)." It appeared next to a 1935 photo of a Jewish businessman in Germany with the yellow Star of David badge sewn onto his coat, as required by Nazi law at the time. It was authored by Iranian-American Amir Taheri, chief editor of Iran's daily Kayhan (propaganda arm of the Shah's dictatorship) from 1972-1979, National Review contributor, and well-paid speaker for the warmongering neocon Benador Associates PR firm.
The story was picked up by UPI and reproduced in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and Jerusalem Post, and elsewhere, and represented as fact by US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "Despicable," declared McCormack, adding that Iran was just like "Germany under Hitler." "This is reminiscent of the Holocaust," echoed Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Iran is moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis." But the story was exposed as a hoax by the Iranian ambassador to Canada, and the Jewish representative in the Iranian Majlis among others and retracted by the National Post the day following its publication.
(In July, following discussions with the Bush-Cheney administration, Israel once again invaded Lebanon. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that "The White House was. . . focused on stripping Hezbollah of its missiles, because, if there was to be a military option against Iran's nuclear facilities, it had to get rid of the weapons that Hezbollah could use in a potential retaliation at Israel." A former intelligence officer told Hersh, "We told Israel, 'Look, if you guys have to go, we're behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later -- the longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office.'" The invasion, followed by withdrawal the next month, did not accomplish this objective but rather strengthened Iran ally Hizbollah politically.)
On August 6, Murdoch's Sunday Times of London reported that Iran had been plotting to obtain large amounts of uranium from the Congo. But Raw Story cited a source close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who called the story "highly unlikely" and "not well researched." (The same Raw Story report noted that Abram Shulsky is still briefing Cheney regularly about Iran, suggesting a connection between the Times article and the neocon apparatus in Washington.)
As Israeli advocates of a US attack on Iran became increasingly anxious at the American delay, they ratcheted up the rhetoric, accusing Iran of planning what Hitler failed to accomplish: the annihilation of Jewry. (There are in fact at least 25,000 Iranian Jews, whose roots go back 2500 years, and one Jewish representative in the Majlis.) In December, former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu summoned seventy foreign diplomats in Israel to a meeting to pressure them to join Israel in efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program. According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, the meeting was "the first event in an international public relations campaign. It will include a proposal to file a complaint in the International Court of Justice against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for war crimes, and his plans to commit genocide will be presented."
"In 1938," Netanyahu averred, "Hitler didn't say he wanted to destroy [the Jews]; Ahmadinejad is saying clearly that this is his intention, and we aren't even shouting. At least call it a crime against humanity. We must make the world see that the issue here is a program for genocide." Outgoing US UN Ambassador John Bolton called on the UN International Court of Criminal Justice to charge Ahmadinejad with "inciting genocide." "It's time to take action," Bolton told a Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations symposium. "We're being given early warning, unambiguously, on what his intentions are." This is of course the most grandiose piece of disinformation inflicted on the public to date, with a shock value topping the "mushroom cloud over New York City" image used to sell the war on Iraq.
On December 6 the Iraq Study Group (Baker-Hamilton Commission) recommended to the president that he initiate a gradual withdrawal from Iraq and consult with Iraq's neighbors including Iran to stabilize the country. Towards the end of the month several Iranians including two invited into the country by Iraqi Vice President Jalal Talabani were detained by US forces, prompting criticism from the Iraqi puppet regime itself. The US accused the detained of complicity in attacks on US or "Coalition" troops. There was at year end a subtle shift of emphasis in the broad propaganda program from Iran's nuclear activities to its involvement in American deaths.
On January 10, in a much awaited response to the Commission recommendations Bush announced that he would instead escalate the war and adopt an even more confrontational posture towards Iran. He declared (without evidence) that the Islamic Republic was "providing material support for attacks on American troops" and allowing "terrorists and insurgents" to use its territory "to move in and out of Iraq." "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces," he vowed. "We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran. . . .and we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
On January 11, US-led forces entered a building in the Kurdish city of Irbil, which both Iranian and Iraqi officials regard as an Iranian consulate flying the Iranian flag, and apprehended 6 Iranians. "I think it's instructive," declared Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "that in the last couple of weeks two of those raids that we conducted to go after these folks that are providing these kinds of weapons [EFP] -- two of those raids had policed up Iranians. So it is clear that the Iranians are complicit in providing weapons."
It's actually not clear at all, and a planned announcement to provide details had to be delayed three weeks as the administration conceded that it faced a credibility problem. "In the old days," said an unnamed administration official, "if the US government had come out and said, 'we've got this, here's our assessment,' reasonable people would have taken it at face value. That's never going to happen again." But in Baghdad on February 12 US officials briefed reporters on the issue of Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents. The journalists, including those from Associated Press, The New York Times, and Reuters all attended having agreed to the condition that none of the three US officials taking part could be named or even closely described. All cameras and recording devices, including cell phones, were banned from the briefing room.
The anonymous officials at this spookiest of press briefings announced that the Islamic Republican Guard Corps-Quds Force, "believed to be" controlled by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had been delivering EFP to Iraq since 2004. The Washington Post thus reported: "Iranian security forces, taking orders from the 'highest levels' of the Iranian government, are funneling sophisticated explosives to extremist groups in Iraq, and the weapons have grown increasingly deadly for US-led troops over the past two years, senior defense officials said Sunday in Baghdad. Three defense officials from the US-led Multi-National Force in Baghdad, laid out for reporters what they described as a 'growing body of evidence' that Iran is manufacturing and exporting into Iraq the armor piercing explosives, known as 'explosively formed penetrators,' or EFPs, that have killed more than 170 coalition troops, and wounded more than 620 others, in the past two years." The New York Times headlined the Iranian arms link story two days in a row, while editors noted that the case was weak, and the timing of the announcement suspicious.
The Iraqi (puppet) deputy foreign minister himself questioned the charges. Labeed M. Abbawi told the Washington Post, that the Iraqi government remained in the dark. "It is difficult for us here in the diplomatic circles," he declared, "just to accept whatever the American forces say is evidence. If they have anything really conclusive, then they should come out and say it openly, then we will pick it up from there and use diplomatic channels" to discuss it with Iran. Various Iraqi officials urged the US not to pursue its quarrel with Iran on their turf. Meanwhile Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he did not know if the Iranian government itself was supplying EFP material to Iraqis. "That [Baghdad report] does not translate that the Iranian Government, for sure, is directly involved in doing this," he stated. "What it does say is that things made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers."
But Bush himself in his February 14 news conference told reporters that "we know that" the Quds Force was supplying weapons, and that the Quds Force is part of the Iranian government. "That's a known," he declared. "Whether Ahmadinejad ordered the Quds Force to do this, I don't think we know. But we do know that they're there and I intend to do something about it. And I've asked our commanders to do something about it. And we're going to protect our troops."
Israeli officials (who surely have Washington's ear) continue to insist that there's no time to waste to end the genocidal threat that is Iran. Uri Lubrani, a former Israeli ambassador to the Shah's Iran and now a senior advisor to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, recently told the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors that the US "does not understand the threat and has not done enough," adding that the Americans and Europeans "must be shaken awake." Americans, that is to say, must be made to fear, must be disabused of their commonsense and moral qualms, must be compelled to share the paranoia.
The bland observation of Nazi Hermann Goering, made during the Nuremburg trials, bears frequent repeating. "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country." All the above forms a case that Iran, a developing country, is attacking the United States of America, the world's sole superpower, and Israel, a country close to many Americans' hearts. All the above makes Iran the aggressor, the US and Israel the victims. No matter that Iran has never in modern times attacked another nation, or that an attack on the US or Israel would result in horrific consequences for the Islamic Republic.
The disinformation campaign eschews logic, gambling that fear alone will produce popular support. It anticipates the eventual discovery of its lies and charades, but calculates that the attainment of its heroic ends will make any embarrassment worth the effort. So what if following the nuking of Iran, after the rubble's cleared, we discover that Iran had no military nuclear program? Maybe there will be no evidence of anything at all left anyway. Maybe that's the radiant beauty of the plan.
Don't expect the neocons urging the Iran attack to apologize after the event, not matter how catastrophic the consequences. Consider Douglas Feith's response to the report by the Pentagon's inspector general that his Office of Special Plans peddled allegations about Iraq "not supported by the available intelligence" in order to get the US into a bloody war.
"All of that was wrong, wasn't it?" Feith was recently asked by Chris Wallace in the most neocon-friendly environment imaginable, Fox News studio.
"No, not at all," Feith responded. "There was substantial intelligence. . . . There was a lot of information out there."
A lot of information indeed. Lots of stuff to believe and fear. That's how it works, again and again, in the history of US imperialism. From the imaginary Spanish sinking of the USS Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to Saddam Hussein's WMD to Iran's plans for genocide. Disinformation has a long proud history of working well when deployed by amoral, unscrupulous, maybe insane men holding state power. Will it work once more?
Gary Leupp (repost)