Somalia, 1993: During the darkest days of the American military intervention, when US troops were taking casualties from drug-addled gunmen wearing flip-flops, US officials pointed to a familiar nemesis.
It was Iran, warned Madeleine Albright, then-US envoy to the United Nations, that had forged a "tactical alliance" with a Somali warlord and "terrorists" in Sudan. Intelligence sources for the first time spoke of smuggled Iranian weapons. In Mogadishu, journalists were told that Iranian agents were training Somalis to make car bombs. But no proof was ever presented.
US charges against Iran's role in Iraq are mounting. But analysts say that a history of unsubstantiated US claims against Iran should serve as a cautionary tale. The lesson to be drawn is not that Iran is guiltless in Iraq, they say, but one of restraint as a familiar drumbeat sounds.
The latest step in the Bush administration's intensifying campaign to depict Iran as a disruptive force in Iraq is a decision to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard force a "terrorist" group. That label, and a push for more UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, and continued charges of training, funding, and supplying anti-US militants in Iraq, experts say, could harm Iraq security talks between US and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad.
"The Americans are blaming Iran for everything that goes wrong, even if it's not Iran's fault, and Iran does the same with the US," says Trita Parsi, the Washington-based author of the forthcoming "Treacherous Alliance: Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US."
"Decisionmakers in Washington are by-the-minute limiting their own maneuverability in how to deal with Iran, [thereby] making it more difficult to put the relationship on a positive track," he says.
The US case against Iran
This week, the US commander of central Iraq claimed that 50 officers of the Revolutionary Guard's elite Qods Force were in Iraq, training militants.
Top US officers also charged this month that lethal roadside bombs called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) from Iran were used in 99 attacks in July and caused one-third of US combat deaths, an "all-time high," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, deputy US commander in Iraq, told The New York Times.
General Odierno claimed the "Iranians are surging support" to Iranian-trained cells to influence US decisions about the Baghdad troop surge. "Over the past three to four months, [Iran's support] has picked up in terms of equipment, training and dollars," Odierno told the Times.
Some US charges appear to stick. US forces earlier this month captured homemade video of preparations for two Shiite militant attacks on a US base southeast of Baghdad on July 11 and Aug. 5. The footage showed 50 fresh-from-the-box 107-mm rockets being lined up on metal stands in daylight, to fire upon the base.
Intelligence officers told Fox News that there was "no doubt" the rockets – still with some packing grease and English lettering for export, the year 2006, and color-coded – were made in Iran. How they got to Iraq, and carried by whom, they could not say. Fourteen of those rockets were fired at the base, killing one soldier; 36 others were found primed, but their timers failed. Three more larger rockets were fired Aug. 5.
Still, other charges have not stuck and some have been retracted. US intelligence sources claimed in Baghdad in February, for example, that the sophisticated manufacture of EFP parts led them to believe that they could only have been made in Iran and that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would almost certainly have been aware of it.
Shortly afterwards the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace, said that he could not confirm that Iran's government "clearly knows or is complicit." US forces have also raided numerous EFP workshops inside Iraq and found such explosives ; they are often used in the oil industry.
Likewise, initial speculation by US officials pointed to "Iranian-trained operatives" in a January attack in Karbala, in which militants dressed as US soldiers and speaking English drove into a US base, kidnapped US troops, and killed five. Months later, the top US general in Iraq denied finding any tie to Iran.
Still, headlines linking Iran to the Karbala killings emerged again in early July, after a US general said that two captured operatives, a Lebanese Hizbullah member, and an Iraqi group leader, said that Iran's Qods Force "knew of and supported planning" for the attack. But in late July, Time magazine reported – based on an internal US Army investigation and interviews with US and Iraqi witnesses – that details "suggest" an inside job by the Iraqi police.
The result of this buildup of US allegations of Iranian involvement in Iraq could also prove to be a prelude to war: "If you can make the case that Iranians are actually killing Americans, that makes it extremely difficult for those opponents of military action to depict the administration as warmongering," adds Parsi, also the head of the National Iranian American Council.
Iranian officials deny undermining US efforts in Iraq, though senior officers note that US forces throughout the Gulf and in Iraq and Afghanistan are often within Iranian missile range. Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi vowed this week that "America will receive a heavier punch from the guards in the future."
Some hard-liners in Iran, who today exert strong influence over every power center in the Islamic Republic, welcome the steady drumbeat from Washington as proof of US ill intent, says Hadi Semati, a political scientist in Tehran.
"I haven't seen this level before [of] a systematic [US] propaganda campaign, partly disinformation, partly probably true, but exaggerating it … to blame Iran for everything," says Mr. Semati, who recently spent three years at think tanks in Washington. "It reinforces the idea that people have in this town [Tehran] that any discussions on Iraq are purely tactical, and that the Americans are not serious."
The Iraq effort "is already a failure," says Semati. "Blaming Iran serves a purpose of partially, or even mostly, from the perspective of hard-liners in Washington, making the situation look better."
The Halabja example
Such episodes echo past hostile US-Iran allegations, as in Somalia, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Few examples are as clear-cut as that of Halabja, the Kurdish town in northern Iraq gassed by Saddam Hussein's troops in 1988 in a strike that left up to 5,000 civilians dead.
Iraq increasingly received the backing of the US and the West in its 1980s war against Iran. So US officials, to cast doubt that Iraq was solely responsible for such a war crime, began suggesting that Iran was also to blame.
"There is a rush to judgment [against Iran today], and this should be questioned, given the past and the outright dissembling that occurred [in 1988] when it was convenient to accuse the Iranians because the American ally Iraq was doing something totally embarrassing to the Reagan administration," says Joost Hiltermann, author of the recently published "A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja."
"These people have learned the lesson that this kind of lying works and will do it again," says Mr. Hiltermann, the Istanbul-based Middle East director for the International Crisis Group.
The charge against Iran took root so effectively in the media – this newspaper also published notable, unattributed examples of "good intelligence" that cited Iran's role – that until recently, references to the "Iraqi" gassing of Halabja yielded letters of complaint from readers, pointing out the Iranian role, and offering US government documents as proof.
The Halabja case suggests "an exceptional attempt at naked deception," says Hiltermann in his study, noting that 18 tons of Iraqi secret police and intelligence documents seized in northern Iraq in 1991 make frequent reference to Iraqi use of chemical weapons, but none about any chemical use by Iran.
Growing antipathy toward Iran
If anything, the level of antipathy toward Iran is higher today than two decades ago.
"We are confronting Iranian behavior across a variety of different fronts on a number of 'battlefields,' if you will," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week. "We confront them on the ground in Iraq. Our military is doing that. We are confronting Iran diplomatically … with respect to their nuclear program."
"This administration has a track record of doing what it thinks is right, and doing it regardless [of the facts].... The debate is far less about 'Can it be true?' or 'Can it not be true?' " says Parsi. The bigger picture, he says, is a regional power struggle between a strengthening Iran and an America weakened by debacle in Iraq.