Skeptics Doubt U.S. Evidence on Iran Action in Iraq

By HELENE COOPER and MARK MAZZETTI

New York Times

February 12, 2007

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 — Three weeks after promising it would show proof of Iranian meddling in Iraq, the Bush administration has laid out its evidence — and received in return a healthy dose of skepticism.

The response from Congressional and other critics speaks volumes about the current state of American credibility, four years after the intelligence controversy leading up to the Iraq war. To pre-empt accusations that the charges against Iran were politically motivated, the administration rejected the idea of a high-level presentation, relying instead on military and intelligence officers to make its case in a background briefing in Baghdad.

Even so, critics have been quick to voice doubts. Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that the White House was more interested in sending a message to Tehran than in backing up serious allegations with proof. And David Kay, who once led the hunt for illicit weapons in Iraq, said the grave situation in Iraq should have taught the Bush administration to put more of a premium on transparency when it comes to intelligence.

“If you want to avoid the perception that you’ve cooked the books, you come out and make the charges publicly,” Mr. Kay said.

Administration officials say their approach was carefully calibrated to focus on concerns that Iran is providing potent weapons used against American troops in Iraq, not to ignite a wider war. “We’re trying to strike the right tone here,” a senior administration official said Monday. “It would have raised the rhetoric to major decibel levels if we had had a briefing in Washington.”

At the State Department, the Pentagon and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, officials had anticipated resistance to their claims. They settled on an approach that sidelined senior officials including Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, and John D. Negroponte, who until last week was the director of national intelligence. By doing so, they avoided the inevitable comparisons to the since-discredited presentation that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made to the United Nations Security Council in 2003 asserting that Iraq had illicit weapons.

The White House and the State Department both made clear on Monday that they endorsed the findings presented in Baghdad. Asked for direct evidence linking Iran’s leadership to the weapons, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said: “Let me put it this way. There’s not a whole lot of freelancing in the Iranian government, especially when its comes to something like that.”

Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said: “While they presented a circumstantial case, I would put to you that it was a very strong circumstantial case. 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.”

In Australia, however, Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he “would not say” that Iran’s leadership was aware of or condoned the attacks. “It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it’s clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit,” according to an account posted on the Voice of America Web site.

An Iranian government spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, has sought in denying the charges to exploit the lingering doubts about American credibility. “The United States has a long history of fabricating evidence,” Mr. Hosseini, a Foreign Ministry official, told reporters in Tehran.

The administration’s scramble over how to present its evidence started in January, after President Bush accused Iran of meddling in Iraq. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, demanded that the United States present its evidence, and Mr. Khalilzad, the American ambassador in Baghdad, responded that America would “oblige him by having something done in the coming days.”

That set Bush administration officials racing to produce a briefing that would hold up to scrutiny. Military officials in Baghdad developed the first briefing, a wide-ranging dossier that contained dozens of slides about Iranian activities inside Iraq, which was then sent to Washington for review, administration officials said.

But after a careful vetting by intelligence officials, senior administration officials, including National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, concluded that there were aspects of the briefing that could not be supported by solid intelligence. They sent the briefing back to Baghdad to be shored up, a senior official said.

The evidence that military officials presented Sunday was a stripped-down version of the original presentation, focusing almost entirely on the weapons, known as explosively formed penetrators, and the evidence that Iran is supplying the weapons to Shiite groups.

Both Democratic and Republican officials on Capitol Hill said that while they do not doubt that the weapons are being used to attack American troops, and that some of those weapons are being shipped into Iraq from Iran, they are still uncertain whether the weapons were being shipped into Iraq on the orders of Iran’s leaders.

Several experts agreed. “I’m not doubting the provenance of the weapons, but rather, the issue of what it says about Iranian policy and whether Iran’s leaders are aware of it,” said George Perkovich, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Philip D. Zelikow, who until December was the top aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said American politics and the increased unpopularity of the war in Iraq is obscuring the larger issue of the Iran evidence, which he described as “abundant and so multifaceted.”

“People have lost their moorings,” Mr. Zelikow said. He said the administration was trying to overcome public distrust by asking, in essence, “Don’t you trust our soldiers?”

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran.