The other day, when I picked up my mail as usual, I found something most unusual. It was a letter from a member of Stephen Harper’s cabinet and the conservative Member of Parliament for my riding in Toronto, Joe Oliver.
But the page did not contain a single word of Mr. Oliver’s on it. Instead, both sides of the single page letter were filled by a reprint of a September 8, 2012 National Post article by former George Bush speech writer David Frum. The article was called ‘Good Riddance to Iranian Diplomats,’ and was a defence of the Canadian government’s recent expulsion of all Iranian diplomats from Ottawa.
Frum’s defence is, in large part, a superficial restatement of old, disreputable accusations — listed, but never supported. Mr. Oliver then tags on to the end of the letter the (improperly punctuated) question, “WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK? Do you support closure of diplomatic ties with Iran?” He then gives three options: yes, undecided or no. This last line, a limping attempt to cloak this piece of propaganda in the veils of democracy, was even more scary and maddening than David Frum’s article.
Well, Mr. Oliver, here’s what I think.
Though David Frum raises a couple of legitimate complaints about Iranian treatment of some Canadian citizens, most of his charges against Iran are not charges at all, but reverberations of the same questionable and discredited claims that have been amplified over the years by the echo chamber.
Frum traces the history of Iranian disrespect for diplomacy to the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage taking. While there is no way to defend the taking of hostages, Frum chooses to start his history in a very interesting, truncated and misleading way.
As professor Vali Nasr of Tufts University has said, “In the popular mind, the hostage crisis was seen as justified by what happened in 1953”. What happened in 1953 was that the United States and Britain took out the popular and democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq. This first of all CIA coups put the Shah of Iran back on the throne to carry out his many years of savage and repressive dictatorship.
The Shah would repress opposition media, political parties, unions and other groups. He would bring in SAVAK, that most notorious and murderous secret police and their hellish torture chambers. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iranians would learn that there were CIA offices in SAVAK headquarters and that the CIA had been involved in the training of SAVAK officers. Stephen Kizner tells the story of the U.S. hostage who complained to his Iranian capture about his imprisonment. “You have nothing to complain about,” said his capture. “The United States took our whole country hostage in 1953.”
None of this is an acquittal of the Iranian hostage takers. But it is historically manipulative to call the hostage taking the first “attack on the very idea of diplomatic norms,” when it was a response to a coup that took out a democratically elected leader: surely itself an attack on diplomatic norms. In 1953, the Iranians chased out the Shah only to have the U.S. intervene and put him back on the throne; in 1979, the Iranians finally chased him out again, only to have the U.S. take him in and provide him with sanctuary. The Iranians saw the hostage taking as an attempt to prevent American midwifery from delivering the same fate again.
Frum then turns to Iranian embassies abroad and condemns them for acting as assassins. However, he ignores, as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar has pointed out, that the assassinations were domestic quarrels, that the victims were expatriate dissidents who were threats to the Iranian leadership and that, most importantly for a justification of the current closing of Iranian embassies in Canada, they pretty much stopped a decade and a half ago. That is why the most recent such charge Frum can call up happened in 1992 — two decades ago.
Edging forward in time, Frum arrives in Argentina in the first half of the nineteen-nineties, where he matter-of-factly lays the blame for attacks first on the Israeli embassy and then on a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires on Iran.
But is that a matter of fact? Investigative journalist and historian Gareth Porter says that it has only come to appear that way due to the constant repetition of unsubstantiated journalistic and political references. The persistently repeated claim is that Hezbollah was responsible for the bombing and that Iran was responsible for Hezbollah. But, according to political scientist Stephen Zunes, “Despite longstanding investigations by Argentine officials, including testimony by hundreds of eyewitnesses and two lengthy trials, no convincing evidence emerged that implicated Hezbollah.”
William Brencick, who was chief of the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires and the primary Embassy contact for the investigation of the bombing, told Gareth Porter that the U.S. claim that Iran was behind it was based on a “wall of assumptions.” Porter says that of 200 eyewitnesses, only one claimed to see the white Renault van that was supposed to be the suicide vehicle. And her sister contradicted her, saying she saw a black and yellow taxi. It was the suicide vehicle that suggested Hezbollah, and Hezbollah that suggested Iran. So without this piece, there is no trail leading to Iran. Calling the suicide bomber theory further into question, Porter says, is the inconvenient fact that U.S. explosives experts found evidence that at least some of the explosives were placed inside the community centre and not in a suicide vehicle. The alleged suicide vehicle was also found with its identification number still suspiciously present and pointing to suicide bombers who would surely have been professional enough to remove them. Frum drops the crime on Iran’s lap as a matter-of-fact not in need of evidence — which is convenient for him, because there is none.
As Frum moves into the present, his vocabulary seems to belie an awareness of the impotence of his case. He says that the U.S. government has “accused” Iran of attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington and that Iran has been “implicated” in terror attacks against Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia. But “accused” and “implicated” betray the lack of a case against Iran. Did Canada expel the Iranian diplomats over accusations and implications?
But it’s worse than that, because the accusations and implications have been exposed, not as more than that, but as less. There is a consensus among experts that Iran had nothing to do with the attempted assassination on U.S. soil of the Saudi ambassador. It is very hard to see what Iran would have to gain by assassinating the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil other than American strikes, as in past cases of countries who plotted against U.S. targets.
As an Iran analyst with the Rand Corporation has said, the plot “doesn’t seem to serve Iran’s interests in any conceivable way … [but] would put all of Iran’s objectives and strategies at risk.” Several experts on the Iranian Quds forces that have been accused of the assassination attempt have pointed out that it is unlikely and uncharacteristic of them to rely on an untrained and untested used cars salesman and a non-Islamic criminal drug gang to carry out such a sensitive operation.
Former CIA Middle East officer Robert Baer says the plot does not “measure up to Iran’s unsurpassed skill in conducting assassinations.” Paul Pillar agrees that this plot is inconsistent with Iran’s “caution and careful calculation.” Iranian specialist Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says “nothing about this adds up” and that the plot came from high levels of the Iran leadership “defies credulity.” Gary Sick, an Iranian expert at Columbia University, says the plot “departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures.” Colonel Lang, a former top Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency called the claim that Iran was responsible “trash.”
But the most decisive criticism of the accusation against Iran’s belligerent attempted assassination on American soil comes from Gareth Porter. The U.S. claims that the hard evidence of Iranian guilt comes from a twenty-one page FBI deposition. But Porter has shown that a close reading of the deposition reveals a total lack of independent evidence that Manssor Arbabsiar was sent by the Quds force to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. He says that “The most suspicious aspect of the administration’s case, in fact, is the complete absence of any direct quote from Arbabsiar suggesting interest in, much less advocacy of, assassinating the Saudi ambassador or carrying out other attacks in a series of meetings with the DEA informant between June 23 and July 14.”
Though Frum has no case against Iran with regard to the assassination and can only say that Iran was “accused,” he hypocritically leaves out the much stronger case against the U.S. and her allies in carrying out assassinations on Iranian soil. In the past couple of years, there have been at least three assassinations and one attempted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. In January 2010, Massoud Ali-Mohammadi was killed when a remote control bomb planted on a motorcycle detonated next to his car. According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, Iran’s foreign minister says the evidence points to American and Israeli agents. He claims that “in initial investigations, there are some indications” pointing to Israel, U.S. “and their mercenaries in Iran.”
In November 2010, Majid Shahriyari, was killed when motorcycle riders attached a magnetized bomb to his car. On the same day, assassins tried to kill Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani in the same way, but failed when he noticed the suspicious motorcyclists and jumped out of his car. Also a scientist, Abbasi-Davani was named head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Association a few months later. He says that British spies shadowed him to gather information ahead of the failed assassination attempt.
In July 2011, the Iranian physicist and nuclear scientist Darioush Rezainejad was killed when two gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on him while he was entering his garage. His wife was also wounded. This was the fourth consecutive assassination or attempted assassination employing motorcyclists. Rezainejad worked for the defense department as well as having links to Iran’s nuclear program. According to the International Atomic Energy Association, he played a key role in Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has blamed the United States, Britain and Israel for his assassination. And “a source in Israel’s intelligence community” told Germany’s Der Spiegal that Israel’s Mossad was behind the assassination of Rezainejad.
A fifth important player in the Iranian nuclear game was killed in November when a massive explosion at a military arms depot killed seventeen and wounded fifteen more. The arms depot turned out to be the missile base that houses Iran’s long range Shahab missiles. Included in the dead was Major General Hassan Moqqadam, a pioneer in Iranian missile development. TIME magazine revealed on November 13 that a western intelligence source says that Israel is behind the latest explosion. The source said that Mossad did it and that other sabotage is being planned and will be done.
But now there is more than “evidence” and “indications.” Two senior officials in the Obama administration have revealed to NBC news that Iran’s claim that the West is using “their mercenaries in Iran” is exactly right. The officials say that the People’s Mujahadin of Iran, or the MEK, carried out the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientists. They also confirm Iran’s accusation that the MEK is able to carry out these sophisticated attacks because it is being financed, armed and trained by the Israeli Mossad. They confirm too that the assassinations are being carried out with the awareness of the Obama administration. So as for Frum accusing Iran of carrying out recent assassinations, a much stronger case can be made against us than against them.
And while Israel was quick to “implicate” Iran in the terrorist attacks on Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia, others were just as quick to caution against jumping to conclusions. On February 13, 2012, members of the Israeli Foreign Service were targeted by car bombs in India and Georgia. An Israeli diplomat and two others were injured in India; the bomb was successfully defused in Georgia. Israel immediately delivered a certain condemnation of Iran. The spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in New Delhi said, “We confirm this is the handiwork of Iran and Hezbollah.” Netanyahu had already publicly concluded by the day of the attacks that the Iranians were responsible, as had Ehud Barak.
But Will Hartley, the editor of Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre is less certain. “The attacks,” he said, “have all been highly amateurish, and lack the sophistication that would normally be expected from an operation executed by either Hezbollah or Iran’s … Quds Force.”
The evidence since uncovered continues to suggest an amateur operation inconsistent with an Iranian or Hezbollah bombing. It also makes the link to Iran very tenuous. Gareth Porter reports that forensic analysis has concluded that the bomb used in India was only 200-250 grams of explosives. This low intensity bomb would be well known to Iran to be unlikely to do much damage to the car in which the Israeli diplomat was riding. The bomb itself, then, does not point to an attempted Quds Force assassination. Nor does what the bomb contained. The bomb relied on the fire it caused to slowly burn the car. It could have, but did not, contain shrapnel of iron filings, nails or glass, which would have seriously injured or killed the passengers of the car. But Delhi police found that the bomb contained no shrapnel, suggesting again that seriously injuring or killing the passengers was not the intent or that the assassins were not professional Quds Force or Hezbollah assassins. Not only the bomb, but the placement of the bomb points away from a professional assassin. Porter says videos and photos show that the bomb was attached at the back of the car and not under the fuel tank or on the passenger door where it would have done much more fatal damage. And, finally, not only the location of the bomb, but the location of the bombing points away from Iran. India has been one of Iran’s few friends recently. India has not only increased her oil imports from Iran, but has been working with Iran on ways to circumnavigate sanctions. It is difficult to believe, Porter says, that Iran would jeopardize this increasingly important relationship, or as New Delhi’s Economic Times asked, “Why would Iran go and poke its finger in the eyes of its best customer?”
In an in depth investigation, Porter has gone on to expose several other fatal errors in the Iran theory. No Iranians have ever been officially charged in the New Delhi bombing. Only the Indian journalist Syed Mohammed Ahmad Kazmi has been. But he has been linked to Iran only through his own confessions and through a moped belonging to the Iranian suspect, Houshang Afghan Irani, that was found in his residence. Except for two small problems. Of the five statements of confession attributed to Kazmi, only one was signed by him. And he has since said that the confessions are false and that the signature was put on blank sheets under coercion. So they were not confessions but false statements clearly written, as Porter describes them, “to implicate both Kazmi and three Iranians in the bombing plot”. As for the moped, Kazmi had bought his own moped in April of the year before, and the one the police took away was not the same one, Kazmi’s family and lawyer say, as the one that appears on their seizure report or that Irani is said to have given him.
Other problems have emerged, according to Porter. Indian police were pursuing a red suited rider of a red motorcycle, while security cameras show the Iranian suspect, Irani, in black and riding a black motorcycle. After the police targeted Irani, the story changed to a black suited rider on a black bike. Also suspicious is the timeline of the investigation. The police say they found traces of the same TNT used in the explosion on several items in Irani’s hotel room. But police only sealed off Irani’s room sixteen days after he vacated the room. It would be two more weeks before it was inspected.
So, despite Frum’s “implication” of Iran in the India bombing, the best evidence suggests that there is no link from Kazmi, the Indian journalist, to Irani, the Iranian bombing suspect, and that there is no evidence against Irani or, therefore, against Iran. It has become the accepted story only through premature accusation and constant political and media repetition, like Frum’s. As for the Georgia bombing, blame fell on Iran because Israel assumed the bombings were linked because, the Israelis said, the bombs were similar. But they weren’t. Porter says “there was no similarity whatsoever among the bombs”: one was a magnetized bomb, the other a grenade in a plastic bag taped to the car.
So it is not a simple matter-of-fact, as David Frum would have us believe, that Iran started the violation of diplomatic norms or that Iran has been engaged in recent assassinations and attempted assassinations. The evidence is greater that we have. So if embassies are to be closed on these lines of evidence, perhaps it is the American, and not the Iranian diplomats that should be expelled.
The only thing more troubling than a writer of David Frum’s stature unquestioningly perpetuating the echo of accusations is a Canadian cabinet minister relying on the photocopy of a single article to manipulate the opinion of the public and then insultingly disguising propaganda as democracy by asking the public what it thinks.
Ted Snider has his masters in philosophy and teaches high school English and politics in Toronto.