Skepticism Over Iraq Haunts U.S. Iran Policy

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

The specter of the war in Iraq -- a war the Bush administration denied it was planning, supported by evidence that turned out to be false -- looms large over administration policy toward Iran.

Skeptical members of Congress have questioned administration charges of Tehran's support for Iraqi insurgents and President Bush's insistence that his plans for dealing with Iran remain purely diplomatic. The administration, 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 U.S. invasion in March 2003.

"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."

In yesterday's White House news conference, Bush grappled with the issue head-on. "What makes you so certain," a reporter asked Bush, of the military's charge that "the highest levels of Tehran's government" are responsible for shipments of lethal weapons to Iraq for use against U.S. troops?

Bush contradicted the military's account, saying, "We don't know . . . whether the head leaders of Iran ordered" it.

"But here's my point," he added. "Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that [the weapons] they're there."

Yet, as questions that have peppered senior officials all week suggest, what matters in the post-Iraq invasion era is whether the administration can prove it.

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-Qaeda terrorists," Etheridge said. "I took the president at his word."

Burdened by its troubles in Iraq, the Bush administration 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 weapons activities, support for terrorists in Lebanon and support for insurgents in Iraq.

"We've been very careful in what we've said over the last few weeks," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, the administration's point man on Iran, said in an appearance yesterday 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."

That was precisely what the military asserted 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 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 of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards.

"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."

(Although the briefer emphasized that he was referring to Khamenei and not to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bush cited the Iranian president at yesterday's news conference. "Whether Ahmadinejad ordered the Quds Force to do this, I don't think we know," he said.) The briefer's comments Sunday shifted the focus of a lengthy presentation that had been planned for more than a month. Several media accounts Monday morning noted that no proof had been offered for the "highest levels" charge. "The process fumbled what should be an easy story to tell," one administration official said ruefully.

Controversy grew Monday over reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, had told reporters in Australia that while he knew the weapons were Iranian-made, "I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit."

Frantic telephone calls from Washington to Pace's traveling party ensued. Snow and his counterpart at the State Department, Sean McCormack, were pummeled in daily briefings and directed questions to the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, even as Snow told reporters in Washington he had spoken with Pace and they were on the same page, the general reiterated his view. The discovery of the explosives, Pace said during a news conference in Jakarta, "could not translate to the Iranian government per se is directly involved in doing this."

At another contentious White House briefing, Snow said that he would "push all evidentiary questions to the DNI" -- the director of national intelligence.

The intelligence community, still licking its wounds over faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq, displayed an air of "I told you so" this week and insisted that the Baghdad briefers had gone beyond vetted information.

A senior intelligence official Tuesday offered carefully parsed written guidance he said had been provided to the briefers in Baghdad. "The Qods Force -- a special element of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard . . . -- is involved in providing lethal support to select groups of Shia militants in Iraq. Based on our understanding of the Iranian system and the history of IRGC operations, the IC [intelligence community] assesses that activity this extensive on the part of the Qods Force would not be conducted without approval from top leaders in Iran."

The distinction was important, the official said. The Baghdad briefer's verbal use of "highest levels" went beyond what the intelligence community had suggested. The "top officials" wording, the official said, better reflected administration knowledge.

In Baghdad yesterday, a U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, tried to clarify, saying the intent of the news conference was not to talk about who had authorized Iranian arms shipments: "This is about the fact that American forces . . . are being killed by munitions and weaponry that are being produced in Iran."

Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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