Monday, January 08, 2007

Smoking Guns and Propaganda

This year, everyone will be talking about Iran. Whatever the intentions of the Iranian government, Iran's leaders are now in a position where they will find it impossible to halt their uranium enrichment programme in the face of American demands. Unless the U.S. government is prepared to offer concessions of a size that'd make Iran the unambiguous winner of this confrontation, and the Bush administration certainly wont do that, the Iranians will not back down.

Regarding the intentions of the Iranian government, it should be remembered that while certainly possible, there is no conclusive evidence to support the view that they have a nuclear weapons programme. It is also worth noting that Iran's stated reason for developing nuclear power is to reduce their dependence on their finite oil resources in order to make more oil available for export and for processing into petrochemicals.

This rationale has been slated as ridiculous by many but it was considered perfectly credible when then the U.S. government was offering assistance to the Shah in the 1970's. A strategy paper signed by President Ford stated that the "introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals." Iran obviously has less oil now than then so it's slightly strange that so many people now consider this possibility so utterly implausible.

There are, nevertheless, still questions as to whether the Iranians are being entirely honest. The IAEA have said that "Iran possesses a document related to [the] casting and machining of enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispherical forms". There is, as far as I'm aware, only one use for these hemispherical uranium forms. and it isn't as the latest design of Nike football.

But then again, despite fatuous reports that Iran's spiritual leaders had issued a fatwa allowing the use of nuclear weapons (the reported "fatwa" actually came from a minor figure, a student called Mohsen Gharavian who immediately complained that he had been misquoted), Iran's Supreme leader has actually issued a fatwa expressly stating that "the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that Iran shall never acquire these weapons".

It is hard to know what the real intentions of the Iranians are. President Bush, however, has no such difficulties. Never one to question the validity of his own judgements, he's already decided that he does know exactly what's going on and he has been clear as to the approach he intends to take. Several times, he has stated that a nuclear armed Iran is "unacceptable".

The noise in the media concerning military action against Iranian nuclear facilities has been steadily increasing in recent months. 2007 may well be the year in which the U.S. and/or Israel takes military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. It is hard to avoid concluding that a campaign is under way to prepare the public.

Here's an example of this in action. The small silver lining to the cloud is that this does suggest that the U.K. government may not be so keen this time round.

According to Newsnight's sources, the "meddling" Iranian's captured by the U.S. military in Iraq, the one's in Iraq at the express invitation of the Iraqi government, were there to meet with various Shiite factions.
Officials told Newsnight the arrests produced highly important intelligence, but no "smoking gun" about weapons supplies or attacks on coalition forces.

They said that the arrested men were in Iraq to hold high-level meeting with representatives of several Iraqi Shia factions.
This makes perfect sense. While giving the general impression that the Iranians are "up to no good", the extent of the anti-Iranian message is limited.

On the other side of the pond, however, a notoriously right-wing newspaper is telling a different story. Here what the the New York Sun had to say on the matter (via).
Iran is supporting both Sunni and Shiite terrorists in the Iraqi civil war, according to secret Iranian documents captured by Americans in Iraq.

The news that American forces had captured Iranians in Iraq was widely reported last month, but less well known is that the Iranians were carrying documents that offered Americans insight into Iranian activities in Iraq.

An American intelligence official said the new material, which has been authenticated within the intelligence community, confirms "that Iran is working closely with both the Shiite militias and Sunni Jihadist groups."


Another American official who has seen the summaries of the reporting affiliated with the arrests said it comprised a "smoking gun." "We found plans for attacks, phone numbers affiliated with Sunni bad guys, a lot of things that filled in the blanks on what these guys are up to," the official said.
Just to reiterate, both of these reports concern the same captured Iranians. Clearly, these two reports of the captured intelligence cannot both be accurate.

What's going on there then? I'm going to have to speculate to an extent but I suspect Con Coughlin would probably understand it.

It's safe to assume that if British intelligence services genuinely had access to this sort of smoking gun, the British government would be very keen to make sure that we all heard about it. The Blair government are desperate to divert blame for the failure of their Iraq misadventure onto anyone but themselves. If they'd had access to captured intelligence which showed that the Iranians genuinely were fuelling Iraq's instability by playing one side off against the other, they'd tell everyone who'd listen. The fact that they haven't can surely only mean that they don't have access to this sort of intelligence.

Given what American intelligence officials have told the New York Sun, that leaves two realistic possibilities. The first is that the U.S. government has this information but has decided not to pass it on to the British but this would make no sense at all. The Bush administration wants the British to help them pressure the Iranians and are trying to turn worldwide public opinion against Iran's government. In such a circumstance, why would they withhold such information? Even taking into account the famously secretive nature of the secret services, it just doesn't add up. Why tell the NYS but not your main ally?

The second possibility is that this intelligence is a fiction, one that even the British government is not prepared to propagate. That seems to me to be the most likely explanation. It is explicitly illegal in the U.S. for the government to conduct disinformation campaigns against its own citizens. This is almost certainly the reason why the "information" has been released to a friendly newspaper by anonymous intelligence officials. Anyone heard any member of the U.S. government go on record with these allegations? No? Perhaps that's because it is illegal for a U.S. government official to tell the U.S. public something they know to be false.

But they don't need to make an official statement. Despite the absence of any on the record expression of these allegations, the echo chamber of the interwebs (along with more traditional forms of communication) will spread this sort of disinformation and add to its apparent authenticity without any further manipulation from the government. Here's an example from the Christian Broadcasting Network (via). One of the bizarre ironies of the interwebs is that those who uncritically disseminates propaganda like this are also highly likely to be entirely too fond of calling people with alternate views "useful idiots".

In any event, to seems safe to conclude that the intended effect of this propaganda is to provide a boost in U.S. public support for military action against Iran. It appears to be a strong indication that the U.S. government is preparing for another use of force.

As noted earlier, the fact that Blair has apparently refused allow similar leaks from British intelligence may be a sign that he knows that significant U.K. involvement in this is simply not an option. It is highly unlikely that he does not want to participate, more that he feels it'd be politically unacceptable. For all that the Labour Party has been unforgivably compliant with regard to Blair over Iraq, there are signs that they're near to breaking point. It should be remembered that Blair's stance during the crisis in Lebanon caused considerable instability within the party. Active British involvement in military action against Iran would probably be the final straw.

Blair has, however, been happy to pump out as much anti-Iranian rhetoric as he can. It looks like he's trying to get into the position of being able to offer at least diplomatic support for the U.S./Israeli military effort.

But if Blair did decide not to involve British forces in military action against Iran, that wouldn't be the end of the matter. There's every chance that British troops in Iraq could get caught up in Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces thus drawing the U.K. into the new conflict.

There's an idea going around that there could be a relatively cost free limited air campaign against Iranian nuclear facilities. To see how dangerous this is, consider Blair's recent claim that the reason Iraq has been difficult is because he didn't realise that when you use force to achieve an objective, other people will tend to use force to try to stop you. He really isn't as bright as is sometimes claimed. The idea that the Iranians will not have a major say in the scale of any military confrontation initiated by the U.S. seems to be based on the same wilful naivety. Whether the plan is for a limited military action or not, the U.S. is highly likely to become sucked further into an ever more treacherous quagmire if it attacks Iran militarily. It's hard to see how U.K. forces could avoid becoming involved too.

All the signs are that this could be a very difficult year.

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