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Iran Denies U.S. Claims It Is Arming Iraqi Militias

February 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Road side attacks on the U.S. military have taken a heavy toll in Iraq, and now the U.S. says it has evidence that Iran is providing some of the deadliest weapons: bombs that have killed as many as 170 American troops.

Images of so-called “explosively formed penetrators,” or EFPs, were presented Sunday during an off-camera background briefing by unnamed senior American intelligence officers. The weapons are specifically designed to pierce armor, and the briefers said Iran is sending them to Shia militias.

The U.S. military also released photographs of other newly made weapons recently found in Iraq that it says came from Iran. Iranian officials promptly rejected the charges.

MOHAMMAD ALI HOSSEINI, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman (through translator): Such accusations cannot be relied upon or be presented as evidence. The United States has a long history of fabricating evidence. Such charges are unacceptable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Interviewed by ABC News, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave this view of Iran’s goals in Iraq.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): Our position regarding Iraq is very clear. We are asking for peace. We are asking for security. And we will be sad to see people get killed, no matter who they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, the State Department responded.

SEAN MCCORMACK, State Department Spokesman: The Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity, I think very clearly, based on the information that was provided over the weekend in Baghdad.

JEFFREY BROWN: As that dispute flared over conventional weapons, there were new twists this weekend on Iran’s nuclear program. As Iranians on Sunday celebrated the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, President Ahmadinejad did not make an anticipated announcement that Iran would accelerate its uranium enrichment program. But he again asserted Iran’s right to nuclear technology.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (through translator): The Iranian nation is still determined to continue its nuclear path within the international rules.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a grand show of support for Ahmadinejad and his defiance of the West. But at an international meeting in Munich yesterday, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator said his country is ready to talk.

Also this weekend, and again today, the Bush administration asserted it was not looking to provoke a war with Iran.

Iran's role in Iraq 'nothing new'

JEFFREY BROWN:  And for more on all of this, we get two views. Flynt Leverett covered Middle East terrorism and political issues at the CIA, State Department, and on the National Security Council staff from 1992 to 2003. He's now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Matthew Levitt served as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department from 2005 until last month. He's now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

And welcome to both of you.

Mr. Leverett, what is your overall reaction to yesterday's briefing?

FLYNT LEVERETT, The New America Foundation: First of all, I don't know that the forensic evidence was particularly strong.

But even assuming that at least some of the evidence that was put on the table demonstrates that these weapons were manufactured in Iran, and that in at least some cases they were of relatively recent manufacture, it's a little bit like saying that you're shocked to learn that there's gambling going on in the casino.

Iran fought an eight-year war with Iraq. It had, before the U.S. invasion, a 20-year record of providing support, including military training and equipment, to Iraqi opposition groups, including Shia militia groups allied to major political factions in today's Iraqi political life.

In the post-Saddam period, it should not surprise us that Iran has worked hard to maintain very active ties politically, militarily, in other ways with all of the major actors in Shia politics.

This is not something new. This is not something that I think is particularly surprising. The real questions are: How significant is it? And what should the policy response be?

JEFFREY BROWN: And before we go to the policy response, Mr. Levitt, new and surprising? What's your response?

MATTHEW LEVITT, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, Flynt is right. We shouldn't be surprised that Iran is engaged in this behavior. But, to my mind, it goes far beyond simply being engaged in the Iraqi political process.

To be engaged in the Iraqi political process does not involve providing Shia militias that are targeting U.S. soldiers and other coalition members in Iraq. Modern, recent EFPs, explosive form projectiles or penetrators, of the type that was first tested by Hezbollah, also funded and armed by the Iranian Qud force.

I think the larger story here has to be that, that the Iranians are pushing buttons and seeing how far they can push in Iraq, and not the fact that, as some people are discussing, that this presentation this weekend was delayed and that it was presented by some intelligence officials who couldn't give their names.

I think sometimes you discover officials are caught in a catch-22. They want to get as much information as possible, but they have to protect sources and methods. And so, in this case, they tried to make some intelligence officials available off camera to reporters.

Some people appreciate that effort. And others feel that it's just another smoke screen. I think it's the administration trying to provide as much information as it can.

The timing behind the U.S. briefing

JEFFREY BROWN: You think the timing here and the way this was done -- there was a lot of attention to how this briefing was done yesterday -- that was fishy a little bit, in terms of what they were trying to put out there?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that there is something not coincidental about the timing of this. Basically, the administration is focusing attention on Iran's role in Iraq right now because it's own policy is failing.

Its own efforts at political reconstitution, economic reconstruction in Iraq are failing. The security situation is continuing to deteriorate. And rather than have to admit their many strategic and tactical mistakes in dealing with Iraq, which raise questions about whether this was a good idea in the first place, it's much easier, it's much more politically expedient to blame Iran for the deteriorating situation on the ground.

And to the extent that the administration also has an agenda with regard to Iran's nuclear activities and maybe wanting to set at least the rhetorical and political conditions. Should they take a decision down the road to use force, this is a very convenient way of doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you see a legitimate problem from the Iranians. What about in yesterday's briefing when they talked about tying these arms directly to Iranian leadership? What was the evidence there? What does that lead you to?

MATTHEW LEVITT: They didn't provide much evidence there. And I imagine that that's probably because of the nature of the sources and methods involved. I really think that's the issue, in terms of the timing of this, as well.

The new defense secretary, I think, has been very open about what many of the failures have been in Iraq. And what everyone thinks about the original policy to go in, the fact is that the ability to help create stability on the ground, to create a political process, is very largely determined by the ability to have security on the ground.

The Shia militias are not the only elements that are making that difficult -- al-Qaida in Iraq and others -- but it's basically a consensus now that the greatest threat is from Shia militias and from the types of explosive devices that they are getting from Iran and putting to use against coalition forces.

Iran's reasons for arming militias

JEFFREY BROWN: And what would the goal of Iran be, in providing these kinds of weapons to militias?

MATTHEW LEVITT: Iran clearly has an interest in seeing that Iraq be destabilized, kind of punishing America in Iraq. Iran has an interest in seeing Shia dominance in Iraq. And I think Iran would like to see us bleed a little bit, not so much as to create kind of larger regional tensions.

As Flynt said, we have a series of issues with Iran. And that may have something to do with the timing, as well, I think more in terms of providing what information we could, again, because of sources and methods.

But Iran is aware of that, as well. I think Iran is feeling pressure in its nuclear program, and one of the ways it will make us more uncomfortable is by making life difficult in Iraq.

FLYNT LEVERETT: I would offer a slightly different perspective on that. I think, if you look at the breakdown of U.S. casualties in Iraq, you would have to conclude that Sunni insurgent activity has inflicted a far higher portion of the casualties that U.S. forces have taken in Iraq than Shia militia activity.

So I think, you know, you need to keep these threats in perspective, in relation to one another.

Secondly, in terms of why Iran would be doing this, I think there are a lot of reasons why they would be doing this. First of all, they do have an interest in seeing that Iraq does not develop, as it was under Saddam, into a regime or political order that is threatening to Iran.

They also have an interest in seeing to it that the Shia, who are by far the majority of Iraq's population, are not systemically dispossessed and repressed in the way that they were for many decades before 2003.

Beyond that, they are facing a U.S. administration that, from their perspective, is increasingly hostile towards the Islamic republic. And they want options on the ground where they could inflict pain on us if they think that they need to, that we're going to use Iraq as a platform against them.

But I would say, in terms of the damage that they could do to us in Iraq, they have actually been rather restrained.

The likelihood of U.S. action

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think -- how far do you push this? Do you think that the U.S. is pushing the confrontation with Iran, in spite what we've heard them say?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that the administration is, through a variety of steps that it taking, it is setting the stage for what my wife and sometimes co-author Hillary Mann has described as "provocative accidental confrontations."

They are setting the stage so that the odds are rapidly rising that Iran will eventually respond to provocations, like having diplomats arrested, having Iranian officials taken into custody and detained by American officials, having orders outstanding for U.S. troops to kill or capture Iranians found in Iraq. Eventually, Iran will respond to that, and then the administration will have a casus belli.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see that as the road that we're heading down?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I see a little bit flip side. There is a provocation here, but I think it's Iranian.

The reason Iranian officials -- diplomats, if you must -- have been arrested in Iraq is because of the activities they've been carrying out there. I don't think U.S. forces are roaming Iraqi streets trying to find Iranians.

In fact, one of the things that was revealed over the weekend is that one of the Iranians who was arrested in northern Iraq was one of the commanders of the IRGC Quds force. They're not there to further Iraqi politics; they're not there to protect their interests. They're there to undermine Iraqi stability and to target U.S. and coalition forces, and I think that's the provocation.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Matt Levitt, Flynt Leverett, thank you both very much.