Joanna Paraszczuk and Scott Lucas write for EA:
"Iran Threat" stories are far from rare. The articles on Tehran and the Bomb have the highest profile, but those on Iranian subversion and support of terrorism are also prominent --- only last week there was the flutter that Tehran was behind a plot to assassinate Nigerian politicians and bomb American and Jewish targets.
But what happens if you dig into these headline stories? Are they real or do they become "real" because of the narratives and beliefs --- reporters, editors, unnamed current and former officials, and "experts" --- of those creating them?
On 18 January, The Washington Post prominently featured a story with the eye-catching headline, "Iranian-backed Militant Group in Iraq is Recasting Itself as a Political Player". The opening paragraph was no less sensational:
The Iranian-backed Shiite group responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. forces in the final years of the Iraq war is busily reinventing itself as a political organization in ways that could enhance Iran’s influence in post-American Iraq — and perhaps beyond.
But then something curious happens --- the first half of the story is not about that Iranian influence but about the place of a faction, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which is trying to get a foothold in Iraq's power politics. The article quotes the cleric of charge of AAH's office "in a small house" in Baghdad:
Asaib Ahl al-Haq was founded as an Islamic resistance movement to fight the American occupation, but now this stage is over. Now we have entered a new phase, which is to make people aware of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
So while there is an allusion to Iran --- "portraits of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and...Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hang on the walls" --- the emphasis, rightly and importantly, is on the complexity of Iraqi politics:
The group has a powerful ally in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, who has embraced its entry into politics as a counterweight to the influence of the mercurial Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a longtime rival who has proved an unreliable partner in the coalition government.
However, the shift is temporary. Maybe the Post feels the story of Iraq's manoeuvres for power is just too complicated. Maybe it believes that story lacks drama. Maybe it was impossible to boost the article through an interview with a senior AAH official, such as its head, Qais al-Khazali. Maybe the intent all along is to set the scene for the entry of Tehran.
Maybe all four.
To bring Tehran front-and-centre --- "AAH is reinventing itself… in ways that could enhance Iran's influence in post-American Iraq" --- the article turns to Sam Wyer, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War:
[Wyer said] it is hard to separate Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s political aspirations from Iran’s regional ambitions. “With this dramatic shift towards politics, they are attempting publicly to frame themselves as something other than an Iranian proxy, but I don’t buy it,” he said.
So what is the basis for this sweeping assertion by Wyer --- who got a foothold as an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute working on "Iraqi Shi’a militia groups and Iranian proxy strategy" --- about Iran's plans? The article introduces him with his December 2012 report for the ISW on plots to “enhance Iranian political and religious influence in Iraq and greatly augment Iran’s regional proxy strategy".
If anyone follows the link to Wyer's report, however, those confident assertions begin to waver for lack of support.
There is not a single, concrete reference to Iran's military and paramilitary influence beyond 2007, when Wyer claims a Lebanese operative, Ali Musa Daqduq, was training AAH militia on behalf of Iran's Quds Force and Hezbollah.
The only reference Wyer offers after 2008 is a military briefing in 2010 by General Raymond Odierno, then in charge of US forces in Iraq, about Iranian influence --- curiously, however, Wyer fails to mention that Odierno admitted that the US Government had been unable to establish a clear link between AAH and Tehran.
Nor does Wyer note that --- with AAH's leader Khazali refusing to answer questions in a January 2012 interview with Reuters --- about Iran's relationship with the faction, and with Wyer apparently having not a single source on the ground --- the only continuing prop that he might grab for his analysis are the claims of anonymous US officials.
Not to worry, at least for the Post's article as it turns to one of those officials to build the narrative:
At a time when Iran’s regional reach and the standing of its ally Hezbollah are threatened by the revolt against [Syrian President] Assad, Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s resurgence looks a lot like a renewed attempt to create an alternative vehicle for projecting Iranian influence, said [a] former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue.
"I see them first and foremost as an Iranian proxy. Their nature is such that I don’t think they ever gave up their aim of being an Iraqi analog to Hezbollah,” he said. “They will always be a danger to kidnap Americans, conduct bombings against U.S. consulates or do other kinds of activities.”
Who is the "former US official"? The ISW does not have anyone who qualifies, but at Wyer's previous home at the American Enterprise Institute, there are several who could give the necessary quote. There is, for example, John Bolton --- former Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to the UN --- who is a vehement critic of the Islamic Republic and has support Israeli bombing of it in recent months.
There is Danielle Pletka, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has repeatedly denounced any "engagement" with Tehran, who has written for AEI on "Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan", and who is writing "a follow-up report on U.S.–Iranian competitive strategies in the Middle East".
There is Michael Rubin, who was with the Pentagon, before using the AEI as a base for criticism of the Islamic Republic.
And then are Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, who have been prominent Government consultants and proclaim themselves as "the intellectual architects of the successful 'surge' strategy in Iraq." On 8 February --- 10 days before the Post article -- they wrote an opinion piece for the newspaper:
Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are re-mobilizing. Iraq teeters on the brink of renewed insurgency and, potentially, civil war.
So to recap: a ptentially valuable investigation of the position and aspiratons of an Iraqi political faction has been replaced by the dominant, but unsupported, narrative of Iranian control of that group and, thus, of politics inside Iraq.
But why does that matter? After all, the Post's article is now 11 days old, with other headlines filling the gap.
Well, because even if the newspaper has left the "Iran threat in Iraq" behind for the moment --- with this week's attention to the nuclear talks and with the Post's reporter now working inside Syria --- other sites are eagerly spreading it. Lebanon's Al-Mustaqbal --- the newspaper of Lebanon's mostly-Sunni Future Movement, which is anti-Hezbollah --- has been accompanying it with claims from sources from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the armed movement dedicated to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, that Iran plans to use AAH and another group, Kataeb al-Mukhtar, to bomb targets near the Kuwait border. The Kuwaiti political daily Al-Seyassah is claiming that Iran is plotting to attack Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, and that the Supreme Leader has recently decided to expand into Iraq amid concerns that Syria could fall to the insurgents.
The Post's story has been recycled widely in the Sunni Arab world, for example, the Qatari newspaper Al-Arab ran it on 22 February with the headline, "Shia Group Strengthens Iran's influence in Iraq". Jordan's Al Bawaba post the full, translated article as "AAH: The Shia 'Hezbollah' in Iraq". A columnist in Asharq al-Awsat declared the emergence of a "Shia Al Qa'eda", as "the Shia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq — an adherent of Iran that has carried out killings and bloodshed — has entered the political arena with the aim of undermining the Sadrist movement and consolidating [Prime Minister] Nuri Al-Maliki’s stance".
The story usefully reinforced long-running narratives. For example, there is December 2012 claim in Saudi Arabia's Al-Watan that Iran supported AAH. There is Kuwait's Al-Seyassah "report", from an Iraqi political source, that Tehran was considering support of a plan "to move armed forces from Anbar toward Najaf" --- with the participation of the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra, declared as "terrorist" by the US for its operations in Syria. fighters to participate".
The Post's words, just as they echo the sweeping assertions of the Kagans and the American Enterprise Institute, then reverberate among other "quality" outlets in the West. For example, in a lengthy editorial this week, The Economist puts out --- without any supporting evidence or further explanation --- the undoubted reality, "The Islamic Republic sponsors several armed and virulently sectarian Shia factions."
And as it reverberates, the "Iranian-backed Iraq militias" line finds its political purpose. Yesterday Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat counterpart Robert Menendez tabled a Joint Resolution, declaring support not only for more sanctions but for an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear program.
Part of the rationale for the measure: "Whereas the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has provided weapons, training, funding, and direction to terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hizballah, and Shiite militias in Iraq that are responsible for the murder of hundreds of United States service members and innocent civilians...."
Now I would not be surprised if Iran, despite its economic difficulties, has provided financial support for Asaib Ahl al-Haq --- just as Arab States and the US have provided financial support to their favoured groups. I am not surprised that the Islamic Republic supported military training for AAH's militias up to 2007 --- just as the US provided military training and arms for Sunni militia up to and beyond 2007.
That is a long way, however, from documenting that Iran is providing the financial assistance to turn AAH into a leading political faction in Iraq. It is an even further distance from offering evidence --- as opposed to an unsupported declaration --- that Tehran is involved in the paramilitary build-up of an "Iranian-backed Shiite group responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. forces". And it is a big leap from what can be established, AAH's political ambitions in Iraq, to "Iranian proxy".
A journalist who covers Iraq once chided me for scepticism over the framing of an article, "It's called structure, not conspiracy."
Fair enough --- there is no "conspiracy" here. But there is a prevailing narrative here --- from the reporter, the editors, and the "analyst" and "former US official" who serve as sources --- that takes over the story.
Even if that narrative is not actually the significant one, even if no substance is offered for it, it is the one that seizes the headline and thus enters the political battle of "What We Know --- or Should Know --- About Iran".