Pentagon’s phony Iran “evidence”: New rationale for U.S. intervention?
Last week a senior Pentagon official accused Iran of having sabotaged four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on May 12 and of firing a rocket into Baghdad’s Green Zone on May 19. Iran executed these events, he said, either directly or through regional “proxies.”
But instead of creating sensational headlines, the briefing by Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, the director of the Joint Staff, was a flop, because it was clear to reporters covering it that he could not cite a single fact to back it up.
The story got only the most cursory coverage in major news outlets, all of which buried Gilday’s accusation deep in stories about the announced deployment of 1,500 more U.S. troops to the Middle East. Relatively few readers would even have noticed Gilday’s inflammatory claims.
Nevertheless, the briefing raises a serious question whether National Security Adviser John Bolton intended to use the new accusation against Iran stoke a war crisis — much as Vice President Dick Cheney, in another era, used the argument that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for a covert nuclear weapons program to justify the invasion of Iraq. A careful examination of Gilday’s accusations make clear that they do not even claim to be based on any intelligence assessment.
A reporter then tried to try come to Gilday’s assistance by giving him an example of the generic kind of evidence the press was expecting. Was it perhaps the “sophistication of the attack,” the reporter asked, or “maybe the forensics that you’ve done?” But Gilday simply refused to be drawn into such a discussion.
Stovepiping Israeli “intelligence” to strengthen Bolton’s hand
Gilday’s use of “We” in expressing “high confidence” in Iran’s culpability conveniently obscured the all-important question of who had actually decided to make the accusation last week. He was obviously not making it on his own, and he did not even hint at any analysis or assessment from the U.S. intelligence community on the oil tanker sabotage or the rocket fired into the Green Zone. Conveniently for the those behind the Gilday briefing, moreover, no one in the press asked why no such intelligence analysis had been mentioned.
The circumstantial evidence thus points to John Bolton and his allies, notably Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, as the unacknowledged sources of the judgment. That fact is crucial to understanding their Iran strategy, because evidence clearly indicates that those policymakers have based their decisions to escalate the conflict on information provided by a highly self-interested source — the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On May 13, the day after the sabotage of four oil tankers, including two Saudi vessels, a story in the New York Times reported that Israeli intelligence “had warned the United States in recent days of what it said was Iran’s intention to strike Saudi vessels,” citing a “senior Middle Eastern intelligence official” — the term traditionally used to refer in the press to a senior Israeli intelligence official.
That Israeli intelligence warning, moreover, was part of a broader Israeli warning to the United States on alleged Iranian plans to attack U.S. troops and other U.S. and allied targets in the Middle East. On May 6, leading Israeli national security correspondent Barak David reported that warning had been given to Bolton and other senior U.S. officials in an April 15 meeting in the White House. The New York Times Jerusalem bureau reported virtually the same warning by Israeli intelligence that Iran or its proxies were planning a possible strike or strikes against American and/or Saudi targets in Iraq and elsewhere, again citing the “senior Middle Eastern intelligence official.”
Furthermore, those Israeli claims have been “stovepiped” directly through Bolton, who leads the U.S. team of senior national security officials in regular meetings with senior Israeli officials aimed at agreement on joint strategies on issues of policy toward Iran. Those meetings began in December 2017 with agreement on an initial “Joint Work Plan,” and include “joint preparation for different escalation scenarios in the region concerning Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.”
The implications of this arrangement for the internal U.S. politics of Iran policy are profound and dangerous. It means that intelligence analysts have been removed from the process, allowing Bolton and Pompeo to determine the validity of the intelligence warnings on Iran coming from the Israelis. That same stovepiping gives Bolton, who has long had a long reputation for cynically twisting intelligence to advance his own political aims, a crucial source of power over intelligence on Iran.