The Bush administration may be highlighting accusations that the Iranian government is behind attacks in Iraq in order to strengthen its hand in preparing for military strikes on Iran, according to a leading British think-tank.
In a report sifting the evidence produced by US authorities against Iran, the independent think-tank Basic cast doubt on the strength of the intelligence, saying that proved links between the Tehran regime and militia inside Iraq remained “sketchy”.
Given the close ties between Shia Muslim Iran and Iraq, which has a dominant Shia population in the south, the report warned of the dangers of conflating “legitimate acts of foreign relations and cross-border movements of people” with the alleged Iranian involvement in violence.
The UK and US governments have frequently accused Iran of aiding militant groups in Iraq who are attacking coalition forces. However, the report said that “despite efforts by the Bush administration to confirm the strength of evidence presented, doubt still surrounds the case against Iran, particularly with regard to the degree of direct involvement of the Iranian leadership.
“Whatever the true extent and nature of Iranian military action in Iraq, few independent analysts believe Tehran is playing a decisive role in the sectarian warfare and insurgency,” said the report.
Turning to the US strategic motivation for highlighting the Iranian role in Iraq, Basic (British American Security Information Council) suggested that Iran could be a “useful scapegoat to divert the blame” for failures in Iraq away from the occupying powers. But also, “if Tehran can be cast as a source of regional instability in the eyes of the international community, then the US administration’s hand will be strengthened as it seeks support for stronger measures to oppose Iranian nuclear ambitions”.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warned of a “major confrontation” with Iran over its nuclear weapons programme unless negotiations eased tensions. He denied as a “misinterpretation” reports that he was suggesting that the Western policy of demanding full suspension to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear knowledge had been “overtaken by events” because Iran now appeared to have enrichment expertise.
The head of the UN nuclear watchdog told journalists in Luxembourg: “I was simply expressing concern that we are moving towards Iran building the capability, Iran building the knowledge, without the IAEA being in a position to clarify the nature and scope of that programme. If we continue in that direction, we will end up with a major confrontation and we reduce the possibility of a peaceful resolution.”
Mr ElBaradei reported to the UN Security Council on Wednesday that Iran was continuing to defy UN calls for a suspension of uranium enrichment, which can be used for nuclear power – as Iran says – or as fuel for a nuclear weapon if enriched to weapons grade.
President George Bush said he was instructing the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to press for tougher sanctions against Iran. “The world has spoken and said … no nuclear weapons programmes. And yet they’re constantly ignoring the demands,” he said.
William Perry, a former American defence secretary, was critical of the Bush administration’s unwillingness to get involved directly in negotiations, though he admitted they might not solve the problem. “We have to be prepared to offer a package of serious sanctions and serious positive incentives, like security guarantees,” he said. While not ruling out a military option, Mr Perry said it had to be a “very, very last resort”. “One would never consider a military option until all diplomatic options are exhausted. We should be focusing on diplomatic options now.”