Skepticism Is But Step One in the Iran Story

One thing is certain about the claims that Iran is supplying Iraqi terrorists: we haven't even begun to grasp the full story.

In an important bit of reporting about Iraqi roadside bombs and the Bush administration’s claims that Iran is supplying some of these weapons to the insurgency, New York Times reporters James Glanz and Richard Oppel Jr. were careful this morning to include both the claims of “American officials” and “critics” when writing up their latest findings.

Initially we feared the worst, since the first several paragraphs did little more than paraphrase the competing arguments of various unidentified officials and critics, until Major Marty Weber, an explosives expert, entered the fray.

The information Major Weber provided concerned the deadly Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP), which is a kind of super Improvised Explosive Device that has been used in devastating attacks against American and Iraqi forces in Iraq.

As we noted a while back, given that the prewar claims of Saddam’s weapons programs fell apart after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration’s claims of Iranian efforts to supply the Iraqi insurgency with weapons and monetary support are being met with a level of skepticism that was missing in 2002 and 2003, despite evidence that Iran is involved in Iraq in some capacity. And this piece, as opposed to some of the sloppier reporting in ‘02 and ‘03, is careful to provide some balance.

In a workmanlike bit of reporting, Glanz and Oppel provide both Major Weber’s assessments of the captured EFP devices, which he says are proof positive of Iranian involvement, and the counterclaims of several critics calling the evidence weak. In other words, a classic bit of he said, she said reporting.

But there are a couple of interesting wrinkles to Major Weber’s claims that Glanz and Oppel (or their editors) might have included in the piece in an effort to move beyond the he said, she said trap. David Hambling, for instance, writing on Wired magazine’s new military technology blog “Danger Room,” takes on a few of the assertions Major Weber threw out there.

Weber claims that (as paraphrased by the Times),”the use of precision copper discs combined with passive infrared sensors amounted to ‘a no-brainer’ that the explosive components were of Iranian origin, because no one has used that sort of configuration except Iranian-backed Shiite militias.”

Hambling asks, “Are these bombs really only used by Shia groups? Remember, Sunni militants have been responsible for most of the 170 American EFP casualties.” Juan Cole has also expressed doubts about the Shiite-centric nature of the EFP threat, saying that since the vast majority of U.S. casualties have occurred in Sunni areas, one would suspect that Sunni terrorists have had some access to EFP technology.

Then there is Weber’s assertion that “the shallow concave caps… were smooth and flawless, indicating… that they were manufactured in Iran because of the high precision required to make them so.” Hambling also finds this argument weak, asking, “Are we sure that there are no working Iraqi factories that could handle this kind of job?”

Writing in the Los Angeles Times on February 16, Andrew Cockburn answers Hambling’s question. He reported that in November, “U.S. troops raiding a Baghdad machine shop came across a pile of copper disks, 5 inches in diameter, stamped out as part of what was clearly an ongoing order. This ominous discovery, unreported until now, makes it clear that Iraqi insurgents have no need to rely on Iran as the source of EFPs.”

Hambling further notes that while it “took years” for the American military to master the art of making similar devices in the field, “insurgents in Iraq already have essentially the same capability. It’s an example of what has elsewhere been called ‘Intermediate Technology’ which takes a lot of time and money to develop, but when it exists it can be quickly and cheaply copied.”

All of this leaves us in an uncertain place, but one thing is clear: this story hasn’t even begun to be told, and what should be a reporter’s first instinct — a healthy skepticism — is merely the starting point for reporters covering this story.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.