By Ted Snider
March 9, 2017
One of the promises that President Trump
has kept is to get tough on Iran. Though he has not cancelled the nuclear
weapons agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), his
administration has “officially put Iran on notice” for a missile test and he
has imposed new sanctions.
More ominously, The New York Times reports
that Secretary of Defence General James Mattis considered ordering the Navy to
intercept and board an Iranian ship in international waters to search it for
weapons being shipped to Yemen in support of the Houthi rebels who are facing a
fierce U.S.-backed Saudi bombing campaign. According to White House officials,
the boarding operation was called off, not because it would likely have been an
act of war, but because word of it leaked.
Mattis and the rest of the Trump
administration have based this canceled operation and other plans to get tough
on Iran on a number of myths about the Islamic Republic. But the myths are not
unique to the Trump team; the myths are widely embraced across Official
Washington, repeated by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Myth One: Iran Is or Was Developing a
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said
repeatedly that “We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not
going to do so.” Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his predecessor,
the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have
insisted that Iran would never pursue nuclear weapons because nuclear weapons
are against the precepts of Islam.
Khamenei has insisted that “from an
ideological and Fiqhi [Islamic jurisprudence] perspective, we consider developing
nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin.”
And no one really believes otherwise: not
U.S. intelligence and not Israeli intelligence. Former CIA director and
Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta asked, “Are they [Iran] trying to develop a
nuclear weapon?” and succinctly and pointedly answered: “No”. The 2007 National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE), representing the collective conclusions of all of
America’s many intelligence agencies, said with “high confidence” that Iran was
not building a nuclear weapon. A 2011 NIE said “the bottom-line assessments of
the  N.I.E. still hold true. We have not seen indications that the
government has made the decision to move ahead with the program.”
Yuval Diskin, the man who headed Shin Bet,
the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, for six years, accused Prime Minister
Netanyahu of “misleading the public on the Iran issue.” And Lieutenant-General
Benny Gantz, then Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, insisted that
Iran has not “made the decision” to pursue a nuclear weapons program.
Then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, clearly stated that “it is not the case” that
“Iran is determined to . . . attempt to obtain nuclear weapons . . . as quickly
as possible.” He added rhetorically, “To do that, Iran would have to announce
it is leaving the inspection regime . . . . Why haven’t they done that?”
Former director of the International Atomic
Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei told investigative journalist Seymour Hersh
that “[d]uring my time at the agency, we haven’t seen a shred of evidence that
Iran has been weaponising.”
The bottom line is that no one seriously —
not the United States, not Israel, not the I.A.E.A. – ever really believed Iran
was developing nuclear weapons. It was just a useful myth for politicians to
use to justify continued hostilities toward Iran and keep open the possibility
of military strikes.
Myth Two: Iran is Not to be Trusted and
is Violating the Nuclear Weapons Agreement
General Mattis has said “the expectation”
is “that Iran will cheat.” But Iran hasn’t cheated. The latest report by the
I.A.E.A says that Iran is “honouring its end of the deal.” And each prior
report since the deal was signed has said the same. The latest report says Iran
has only about half the low-enriched uranium it is permitted to have under the
agreement and that it is not enriching any uranium to the higher amounts that
would be needed for nuclear weapons.
But there’s more than one way to cheat a
nuclear agreement, the sceptics say. The White House argues that Iran is in
violation of the JCPOA due to its testing of a ballistic missile on Jan.
29. But Iran is not violating the JCPOA
here either. Iran made agreements about their nuclear program; they never
agreed to abandon their conventional weapons program, insisting, like every
other nation, on maintaining the right to defend themselves.
Resolution 2231, approved in support of the
JCPOA, “calls upon” Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic
missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for a defined
period of time. Beyond the fact that the phrasing “calls upon” does not suggest
a direct prohibition, Iran insists they are in compliance because the missiles
are defensive and are designed to carry a conventional payload: the missiles
are not capable of being nuclear armed.
Iran expert Gareth Porter says that Iran’s
“ballistic missiles were not designed for nuclear weapons.” Porter cites
experts who say that “Iran’s medium-range missiles have been designed for
conventional deterrence,” and that “Iran would have to redesign at least the
internal components of the missile to adapt it to carrying nuclear weapons.”
Further, the missile was only medium-range
and exploded in only about half the distance required to reach Israel and
nowhere near the distance to reach America. The official record, then: Iran has
consistently complied with the JCPOA nuclear agreement.
Myth Three: Iran is a Destabilizing
Force in the Middle East and is the World’s Leading State Sponsor of Terrorism
The day after the U.S. imposed the new
sanctions on Iran, General Mattis declared, “As far as Iran goes, this is the
single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” CIA director Mike
Pompeo has similarly called Iran “the world’s largest state sponsor of
terrorism.” And Trump, himself, told Bill O’Reilly that Iran is “the number one
There is no intelligence to support this
claim although it’s a formulation that is insisted upon by the governments of
Israel and Saudi Arabia and is recited by American politicians as a kind of
mantra. In reality, the major terrorist groups bedevilling the West, including
Al Qaeda and Islamic State, have been supported by Sunni-ruled Gulf States, not
Shiite-ruled Iran. Indeed, Iran has helped the governments of Iraq and Syria in
their wars against these terrorist groups.
Not only has Iran been a leader in the
fight against these terror groups, the claim that it is “the largest” state
sponsor of terrorism is absurd given what is now known about America’s Saudi
ally’s sponsorship of Salafist terrorists. Senior U.S. officials have
acknowledged as much.
As early as December 2009, a State
Department cable had declared that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial
support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban . . . and other terrorist groups.” A
2012 Defence Intelligence Agency report identified the “supporting powers” of
what became Islamic State to be “Western countries, the Gulf States and
On Oct. 24, 2014, Vice President Joe Biden
told a Harvard forum, “[O]ur allies in the region were our largest problem in
Syria. . . . They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of
tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the
people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist
elements of Jihadis.”
In May 2015, at a meeting at Camp David
between President Obama and the princes of the Gulf Cooperation Council that
point was reiterated. According to David Ignatius of The Washington Post, at
“Obama and other US officials urged Gulf
leaders who are funding the [Syrian] opposition to keep control of their
clients, so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from the
Islamic State or al-Qaeda.”
And Saudi Arabia’s support for the
jihadists who became Al Qaeda is nothing new. It dates back to the Saudi-U.S.
funding of the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against the Soviet-backed secular
government in Kabul in the 1980s. The Saudi financing of these Sunni jihadists
continued through the 9/11 attacks and beyond, as the militants served as an
irregular paramilitary force for the Saudis to project power against
An important revelation in Seymour Hersh’s
reporting on the truth behind the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was that
the Saudis had been heavily financing bin Laden and Al Qaeda and that their
motivation for keeping bin Laden under wraps was to prevent him from revealing
that fact, according to one of Hersh’s sources.
“A worrying factor at this early point,
according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing
bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want
bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told
the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we
would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what
the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaeda. And they were dropping money – lots of
So, Iran is surely not the chief sponsor of
state terrorism and American awareness of this reality may be reflected in
Iran’s recent removal from the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment presented to
the Senate by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Indeed, far from being an exporter of
terrorism, Iran has suffered from various forms of terrorist-like aggression
from the U.S. and Israel, including the Stuxnet and Flame computer viruses
aimed at Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, three assassinations and one
attempted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, and the blowing up of a
military arms depot that killed 17 people, including Iranian missile pioneer
Major General Hassan Moqqadam.
Myth Four: Iran is not really an Enemy
of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda
In April 2016, in speech at a Centre for
Strategic and International Studies event, General Mattis said, “Iran is not an
enemy of ISIS. They have a lot to gain from the turmoil in the region that ISIS
creates. I would just point out one question for you to look into. What is the
one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. And
it’s Iran. That is just more than happenstance, I’m sure.”
But Mattis’s claim is sophistry. It does
not follow that because ISIS has not attacked Iran’s territory that Iran
doesn’t consider ISIS an enemy and vice versa. Iranian forces and Islamic State
militants have clearly clashed inside Syria where Iran has provided military
support for the government.
But there may be many reasons why ISIS
hasn’t attacked inside Iran, including a lack of ability to penetrate into Iran
or a recognition by ISIS that it is overextended already in its chief areas of
While perhaps pleasing his audience at the
neocon-dominated Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mattis’s
sophistry also omits key facts, such as Iran’s commitment to fighting Al Qaeda
and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Even earlier, Iran viewed Al Qaeda and its
Taliban allies as existential enemies cultivated by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
in the 1980s as Sunni paramilitaries to pressure Iran from the east while Iraq,
then ruled by Sunni leader Saddam Hussein, was attacking Iran from the west.
After 9/11, Iran cooperated with the U.S.
against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, which
provided many of the anti-Taliban fighters assisting the U.S. invasion of
Afghanistan in 2001, was partly created by Iran, which also offered its air
bases to the U.S. and permitted the U.S to carry out search and rescue missions
for downed U.S. planes. The Iranians also supplied the U.S. with intelligence
on Taliban and Al Qaeda targets.
After the Taliban and Al Qaeda were routed
from their Afghan strongholds, Iran helped set up Afghanistan’s new government
and offered assistance in rebuilding Afghanistan’s army. Iran also arrested
hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped across the border.
Iran experts Flynt Leverett and Hillary
Mann Leverett say Iran documented the identity of more than 200 members of Al
Qaeda and Taliban who escaped into Iran to the U.N. and sent many of them back
to their homelands. For many others who couldn’t be sent back to their own
countries, Iran offered to try them in Iran. The U.S. then named several more
Al Qaeda operatives that it demanded Iran search for, arrest and deport.
According to Hillary Mann Leverett, who was negotiating directly with the
Iranians for the White House, Iran captured some and said the others were
either dead or not in Iran.
Contrary to Mattis’s false claim, Iran has
historically and consistently been an enemy of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Myth Five: Iran is Controlling and
Arming the Houthis in Yemen
Constantly being broadcast from Washington
is the claim that Iran controls and arms the Houthi rebels in Yemen. But Iran
neither substantially arms them nor controls them. The Houthis are an
indigenous and independent-minded ethnic group in Yemen that has long played an
important role inside the impoverished nation. They ended up in opposition to
the Saudi-backed government and in conflict with the Saudi-supported Al Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula, an Al Qaeda affiliate operating in Yemen.
The U.S. built its case that Iran was
supplying weapons to the Houthis on an “assessment” that Iran was using fishing
boats to smuggle weapons into Yemen. However, according to Gareth Porter, the
U.S. was never able to produce any evidence for the link between Iran and the
Houthis because the boats were stateless and their destination was Somalia, not
Yemen. An earlier ship was, indeed, Iranian but was not really carrying any
In fact, Porter reports, when President Ali
Abdullah Saleh was forced from power in 2012, he and his son, the former
commander of the Republican Guard, maintained control over the army through
their allies in the upper ranks. Saleh found himself in a strange-bedfellow
alliance with the Houthis because as Jeremy Scahill reports in his book Dirty
Wars, Saleh was often at war with the Houthis.
“To justify their wars against the Houthis
to the United States, Saleh and the Saudis constantly used allegations of
Iran’s support for the Houthis,” Scahill wrote. In other words, Saleh used the
same deceptive claims then as the Americans are using now. However, even then,
the U.S. knew the Houthi-Iran link was weak, and, as Scahill said, though
“Saleh accused Iran of . . . backing the Houthis,” “In a subsequent classified
cable, US officials . . . raised serious questions about the extent of Iranian
Because of the alliance with Saleh, the
Houthis could get all the weapons they wanted from local arms markets and from
corrupt Yemeni military commanders. The Houthi-Saleh-army alliance also
strengthened the Houthis, making it possible for them to advance and take over
military facilities from which they acquired U.S.- supplied weapons.
Just as Iran does not substantially arm the
Houthis, so it does not – and really cannot – control them. In 2014, the
Iranians discouraged the Houthis from capturing the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, but
the Houthis did so anyway.
“It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a
proxy force for Iran,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Huffington Post.
Yemen specialist Gabriele vom Bruck calls Iran’s influence over the Houthis
“trivial” and asserts that the independent-minded Houthis grant Iran no
influence over their decision-making.
To the extent that Iran is involved in the
Yemeni conflict at all, Iran’s assistance has been a response to the Saudi air
war against Yemen, which has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and pushed
the population to the brink of starvation.
Yet, Official Washington’s politicians and
pundits – virtually across the political spectrum – continue to insist that
Iran is the chief sponsor of terrorism. It is a classic example of how Official
Washington, which decries “fake news” and “alternative facts,” is at the
forefront of spreading fake news and alternative facts.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.