Sunday, February 18, 2007

In recent weeks, Iran has defied coherent discussion in Washington, particularly as it relates to Tehran’s efforts to subvert the elected government in Iraq, where the lives of nearly 140,000 American troops are on the line. The Bush administration has botched its handling of the issue, first promising to release information documenting in detail Tehran’s malevolent role in Iraq, and then it didn’t.

The problem was further compounded by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who contradicted administration statements that smuggling of weapons into Iran had been approved by the most senior officials of the Iranian government. That error was compounded by a silly public relations effort when the White House implausibly suggested that Gen. Pace hadn’t really said anything to dispute other administration officials, though it was obvious that he had.

Prominent Democratic politicians have behaved shamefully. In wartime a decent, honorable opposition would have joined President Bush in presenting a united front to a hostile regime in Iran. Instead, party leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden and John Edwards, have faulted the administration for failing to negotiate with Tehran (as if that hadn’t been tried time and again) and warning of dire consequences if it attacked Iran without congressional approval.

In the wake of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a measure of skepticism of administration statements on Iran is inevitable. But in the superheated atmosphere of Washington a reasonable measure of skepticism degenerates easily into adolescent foolishness, which is what happened at White House press briefings last week. Some of the journalists grilling White House spokesman Tony Snow assumed a petulant, peevish tone suggesting that Iran was really an insignificant player unable to damage U.S. interests in Iraq, or that it was the innocent victim of a frame-up by the Bush administration.

While the degree to which the most senior officials in Tehran are directly involved in the killing and maiming of American soldiers in Iraq remains a reasonable subject of debate, the evidence suggests that Iran’s hands are anything but clean. In December, American forces captured members of an elite unit of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard transferring explosives to Shi’ite militias. One official captured in Baghdad was the third-ranking man in the Revolutionary Guards Quds force, which conducts intelligence activities and terrorist training outside Iran. A raid last month in the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil captured five Iranian “diplomats” who were members of the Revolutionary Guard. U.S. forces said at the time that they found what appeared to be maps of Baghdad neighborhoods from which Sunnis could be “ethnically cleansed.” In other instances, U.S. intelligence sources said Iran has been supporting the Sunni insurgency in northern Iraq.

One of the sharpest critics of Iran’s destructive role in Iraq is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, no down-the-line hawk on Iran. Less than three years ago, Mr. Gates and Jimmy Carter’s former national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, co-authored a report for the Council on Foreign Relations calling for U.S. “engagement” with Iran. The most benign interpretation of what is currently taking place is that some people affiliated with Iran’s security establishment have been powerful enough to send weapons and people across the border to foment violence — regardless of whether they have been directly ordered to do so by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

None of this occurs in a vacuum; Iraq is one of many places where Iran is working to destabilize the Middle East and damage U.S. interests. In Lebanon the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah, which last summer plunged Lebanon into war with Israel, put its cadres in the streets of Beirut to bring down the Lebanese government. Along with its ally Syria, Iran has funnelled assistance to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and an amalgamation of terrorist groups called the Popular Resistance Committees, who are using the West Bank and Gaza to attack Israel. Jordan accuses Hamas operatives of planning to carry out operations there. Iran’s subversion of Iraq is but one part of a much darker picture.

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