US and Iran: Is an Iraq grand bargain possible?

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The Real News Network’s Paul Jay talks to Gareth Porter about Iran, Iraq and the Bush administration. One of the fundamental reasons The White House is giving for a possible attack on Iran is that it is arming Iraqi militias that are killing American soldiers. The administration and the US military first began to talk about Iran as a source of weapons in 2005 but have yet to present concrete evidence to back the charges. Complicating matters is the fact that both Iran and the US support Iraq’s al-Maliki government at the same time. While the White House hints at a possible attack on Iran, the US military talks about a deal over Iraq. But what kind of deal could it be?

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: This is now part 4 of our interview with Gareth Porter. Gareth is an independent historian and a journalist focusing on Iran and Iraq. And in this part we’re going to discuss Iran, Iraq, and the Bush administration. Gareth, one of the fundamental reasons that The White House and Cheney and his allies have been giving for some kind of attack on Iran is the interference in Iraq, particularly the arming of militias, the killing of American soldiers, and so on, although there’s this very strange situation where both countries support the Maliki government at the same time. First of all, what evidence is there that Iran arms militias that are killing American soldiers?

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE HISTORIAN: Well, the problem the administration’s had is that they have not been able to come up with concrete evidence to back that charge. And this really goes back to, you know, 2005, 2006, basically, when the administration and the US military first began to talk about Iranian sources of weapons, the Iranians providing these weapons. But every time this charge had been made, they would have to back off and say, "Well, we don’t really have any evidence. We just believe this." And then, in 2007, they went very public with this charge, with this now-famous briefing by three anonymous military briefers in Baghdad on February 11, 2007. And in that briefing, again, they had to admit that it was circumstantial evidence, it was an inference that they were making. They really did not have the direct evidence to support it. What they argued was that "We believe this because the EFPs, the explosively formed penetrators that were capable of penetrating US armor," they said they could not be made in Iraq. Well, this is where the US case really fell apart. What the argument was in February 2007 is that “we do not have any evidence that these EFPs can be manufactured in Iraq.” We have no reason to believe they are. Well, in fact they were being manufactured in Iraq. They had been manufactured in Iraq since 2004. The British knew that; the British intelligence knew that. They had found many bomb factories. They’d found cells making bombs to blow up, you know, to penetrate armor from 2004 on. The US military knew that. They were deliberately suppressing that information when they made that argument. And it proved impossible to suppress it, because the US media began to report that they were finding bomb factories making these EFPs in Iraq. And so in fact what’s happened since early 2007 is that the US military’s had to walk back that argument and to admit that in fact EFPs have been manufactured in Iraq. Now, I reported in early 2007 that one of the British experts on this said that most if not all of the EFPs are now being manufactured in Iraq. This was Michael Knights, a British private security consultant who is probably more knowledgeable about this than any other private individual.

JAY: But one of the things that Crocker and Petraeus said at the hearings and the military has been saying recently quite often is that they’ve captured members of Shia militias who have told them that the weapons are coming from Iran, that they went to Iran for their own training, and so on.

PORTER: They have said this. They’ve stated that they have been told this by people that they have captured. But I’m struck by the fact that they have not produced a single example of who has told them what. They’ve not given any particulars about that. What they have done, however, in the one case that they have made public, not a direct quote, but an attributed quote, you know, they’ve attributed a sentiment to a specific captive detainee was when they captured somebody, a Hezbollah operative, who was captured in Iraq, and the head of a group of Shiite militiamen who was responsible, supposedly, for the Karbala operation of January 2007. That was the most specific that they’ve ever gotten. Except for that, they have not attributed any particular sentiment, any particular charge, to a specific detainee. And my analysis is that this administration, if they had anything specific, they would make it public.

JAY: The Maliki government, some senior members of the government, have said at different times that they do think Iran has interfered. There’s been some push-back from some members of the Maliki government. They have said at times in the past they thought Iran was putting weapons into Iraq, and there was a statement not long ago where they said that that hasn’t happened for awhile. They seemed to go back and forth on this.

PORTER: The al-Maliki government is very divided, not divided between factions, but, you know, sort of internally contradictory about this. This is a regime which has two masters: Washington and Tehran. And it’s not clear, you know, whether they lean more towards Washington or more toward Tehran. On Wednesday they lean more towards Washington, and on Friday they lean more toward Tehran. And so I think that they have to get along with Iran. They are dependent on Iran in a variety of ways. They know that once Washington leaves that they will depend on Iran. And they are fundamentally allied with Iran ideologically and by virtue of the fact that they’re Shiites.

JAY: In terms of this potential grand deal that Iran wants with the United States, Iraq clearly will be at the center of it all. And as I say, we’ve heard Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker talk about the need to work out a deal with Iran on Iraq. But this is a very profound question for American foreign policy. If you accept a big Iranian position in Iraq, then it has implications for the whole Middle East policy.

PORTER: What this administration and Petraeus mean by a deal with Iran on Iraq is that the Iranians will help us suppress any Shiite opposition resistance to the US occupation. That’s what they want. And they believed that they could get that last year, and they were being told that by the al-Maliki government. And after an internal debate within the administration, they finally agreed that that’s what they would try for, and that they would publicly, you know, say to Iran, yes, we believe that you’re being cooperative. That began to fall apart in early 2008, perhaps because the Mahdi Army was not going along with it, was not cooperating with it, perhaps because they saw that there was a deal being made between Iran and the Bush administration.

JAY: Is there a somewhat similar split within Iran? Ahmadinejad does not seem to be someone who wants a grand deal, where maybe Rafsanjani does.

PORTER: There may well be splits within the Iranian leadership over this. It’s very possible that there are people who are ready to say, you know, "We will dispense with the Mahdi Army. We’ll take our chances." And there may be others who say, no, we cannot do that. But I suspect that—let’s face it—the Mahdi Army is, like Hezbollah, one of the major if not the most important deterrents to a US attack on Iran. And in 2006, in early 2006, when Muqtada al-Sadr was in Iran as a guest of Ali Larijani, one of the key national security advisers to the supreme leader, he said publicly, if the United States attacks Iran, the Mahdi Army will defend Iran. And that, I believe, was a signal by Muqtada al-Sadr that he was ready to play that role for Iran, to be a deterrent to US attack, in return for Iranian support for the Mahdi Army. I believe it was after that that certainly training by Hezbollah in Iran certainly picked up, if it didn’t actually start, after January 2006. It may have started before that, but it’s not clear. But certainly there was greater support by Iran for the Mahdi Army after that January 2006 visit by Sadr. I believe that Sadr needs Iran and Iran needs Sadr, because of their mutual antagonism to the United States. Sadr does not accept the occupation and will not accept the occupation. And I think Iran has a problem there. They want to support the al-Maliki regime, but they, I think, fundamentally, the majority of the leadership in Iran, do not agree and cannot agree to the US suppression completely of the Mahdi Army. And I think that’s why you can’t have a bargain between the US and Iran over Iraq, because the United States demands, essentially, legitimization of the US occupation. That’s the only kind of deal that this administration, the Bush administration, will agree to.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.