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POLITICS: U.S. Demanding Iran Restrain Shiite Groups

Analysis by Gareth Porter*

WASHINGTON, Aug 2 2007 (IPS) - A little-noticed statement by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker after last week&#39s U.S.-Iran meeting revealed that the main demand of the George W. Bush administration to Iran is not to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militias but to use its influence with Shiites in Iraq to reduce their attacks on occupation forces.

That demand, which belies official assertions of certainty that the Iranian government is providing arms to the militias, is consistent with other evidence that the administration was primarily concerned with getting Iranian assistance in restraining its Shiite allies when its campaign over Iranian arms began early this year.

Crocker told reporters after the Jul. 24 meeting on Iraq that he had held Iran responsible for Shiite militia&#39s attacks in Iraq, and that that the Bush administration expects Iran to do something to reduce those attacks. He said he had "made very clear" to the Iranian diplomats "that over the roughly two months since our last meeting we&#39ve actually seen militia-related activity that could be attributed to Iranian support go up and not down."

Then Crocker added "We made it clear to the Iranians that we know what they&#39re doing [and] it&#39s up to them to decide what they want to do about it."

The U.S. diplomat&#39s deliberate shift of focus away from the flow of arms to the Shiite militias to the number of attacks carried out by those groups strongly suggests that the administration was never actually convinced that Iran was providing arms to its fellow Shiites in Iraq. If the administration were really concerned primarily with Iran&#39s involvement in providing arms to the Shiites, it would certainly have taken advantage of the bilateral talks to focus on the demand for an end to that flow.

By issuing an open-ended invitation to Iran to "decide what they want to do about" the Shiite operations, however, the administration was clearly signaling that it really wants Iran to intercede with armed Shiite groups in Iraq to get them to exercise restraint.

Crocker&#39s interest in Iran&#39s ability to restrain armed Shiite groups is in line with an important speech last October by the Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the department&#39s senior policymaker on Iran, which made it clear that the administration really wanted Iran to use its influence with the Shiites to calm the situation in Iraq.

After accusing Iran of providing "very sophisticated arms" to Shiite "insurgents" and "terrorists", Burns said, "[W]e expect that Iran, given its obvious interest in Iraq, and given the degree of influence that it has over parts of the Shi&#39a community in Iraq, is going to now decide to act differently."

Burns was quite explicit about the primary demand on Iran. He went on to say, "[C]an you really say that Iran is using its political influence over some of the Shi&#39a political groups to send a message of unity, of a unitary state and a unity among the three major groups competing for political power in Iraq? I don&#39t see that Iran has used its influence in that way."

The Burns speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on Oct. 11 came only a few days after Bush authorised the capture of members of Iran&#39s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in order to create what senior officials described to the Washington Post&#39s Karen DeYoung as "a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders".

In January 2007, when the new, more aggressive policy against Iran was announced, Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates began talking about the need for "leverage" on the Iranians "before we engage with the Iranians."

If negotiations with Iran were to begin "right now," Gates lamented, "we would be the supplicant".

That sequence of events indicates that the publicity campaign around alleged Iranian provision of arms to the militias was only a part of the larger strategy for increasing the pressure on Iran. For Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – but not for Vice President Dick Cheney – the objective was to get Iran&#39s cooperation on its Iraqi Shiite allies.

Iran&#39s support for Shiite militias in Iraq is generally believed to reflect its interest in maintaining good relations with all Shiite factions in the country.

Despite an administration policy to emphasise the charge of Iranian official complicity in the supply of arms, there were telltale signs from the beginning that the Iranian arms charge was a political operation that reflected the neoconservative penchant for creating evidence to serve the policy objective. Asked on Feb. 3 whether there was evidence that the government in Tehran was behind the weapons obtained by Shiite militias in Iraq, Gates replied: "I don&#39t know that we know the answer to that question."

The final presentation of the case for official Iranian involvement in the weapons traffic on Feb. 11 came only after weeks of wrangling within the administration. Gates and Rice let it be known to reporters in early February that they had rejected the first version of the case, and that they were concerned about a repetition of the infamous case for war against Iraq presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell in February 2003, which turned out to be based on a series of falsehoods.

Since the Feb. 11 press conference in Baghdad, in which military briefers admitted that the charge of Iranian official involvement in sending weapons to Shiites in Iraq was "an inference", the administration has offered no further claim of evidence supporting the charge.

The chief of the Shiite militia group which carried out a spectacular attack on a joint provincial compound in Karbala in January and a Hezbollah operative who was in liaison with the group were both captured Mar. 22. But the U.S. command had apparently learned nothing from interrogating them that would indicate that the group had arrangements with the Quds Force – a component of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – for obtaining arms.

The news spokesman for the military command, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, suggested to reporters in a Jul. 2 briefing that the two prisoners had implicated the Quds Force in connection with the planning of the January attack. But the carefully chosen wording used by Bergner – that the two prisoners "state that senior leadership within the Quds Force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack…" – raises more questions than it answers about Iran&#39s relationship with the leadership of the Shiite militia.

Despite that highly ambiguous language and the absence of any further detailed information, The New York Times and Associated Press, among other media outlets, published sensational stories saying Bergner had accused the Quds Force of direct involvement in planning the January attack. Unnoticed by reporters at the briefing was Bergner&#39s failure to claim that either of the two most important Shiite detainees provided evidence of any Iranian arms supply to or training of the Shiite group in question.

*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.

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