Questions Raised About Iran's Involvement in Iraq

U.S. officials report that the government in Tehran is approving weapons shipments to extremists in Iraq. Some question the credibility of the evidence. A former weapons inspector, a strategist and an intelligence official examine the reports and offer reaction.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In Baghdad yesterday, American military officials presented evidence to back up months of charges against Iran. At a news conference the unnamed officials displayed advanced types of weapons they blame for the deaths of more than 170 Americans over the past three years and traced their markings to arms factories in Iran. They also claim that the weapons were smuggled to Shiite factions in Iraq with the authorization of the highest levels in Iran.

After the failures of pre-war intelligence in Iraq there are a lot of questions about the credibility of the evidence, the conclusions, the timing, and about the White House's repeated statements that it does not seek and is not planning a war with Iran.

We'll hear from a former weapons inspector, former intelligence official and from a long-time skeptic of the Iraq war, and we want to hear from callers as well. What would it take to convince you? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Later in the program on the Opinion Page, the 19th century equivalent to presidential e-mail: Abraham Lincoln's telegrams. But first, the evidence against Iran.

We'll begin with Nathan Hodge, a reporter with Jane's Defence Weekly, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. NATHAN HODGE (Reporter, Jane's Defence Weekly): Thanks, good to be here.

CONAN: And first of all, describe what kinds of weapons were put on display at those tables in Baghdad yesterday?

Mr. HODGE: Well it's quite interesting. I'd first heard about EFPs back in December of 2005, when I was in Iraq working on…

CONAN: EFPs?

Mr. HODGE: EFPs, yeah.

CONAN: These are explosively formed penetrators.

Mr. HODGE: Explosively formed penetrators or explosively formed projectiles. We're getting used to a lot of interesting acronyms since the beginning of the Iraq war, and EFPs are a form of IED, that is improvised explosive device, or as it's known in layman's terms, a roadside bomb.

EFPs are basically a kind of IED that fires sort of a hot metal slug that can penetrate any kind of vehicle armor. And as we all know at this point, the United States has spent billions of dollars in up-armoring its vehicles, such as Humvees, to protect soldiers who are inside from IED blasts, which are the cause of about 70 percent of U.S. casualties at this point.

And the interesting thing is that right now the fingers are being pointed at Iran for supplying some of the know-how and technology for the EFP. And basically an EFP is a more sophisticated version of the IED.

Originally what we saw at the beginning of the war, you would just have a couple of mortar shells and maybe an artillery shell that was plugged into a detonator; it would usually be hard-wired, and then a person would command-detonate it from a remote point and an observer would basically see a vehicle go by.

Then the technology of the IED started to get more and more sophisticated. As Americans up-armored their vehicles, the explosive charges got bigger. As they learned to detect these hard-wired IEDs, they went to remote-control IEDs that would be set off, for instance, by a cell-phone signal, a pager, even a garage-door opener.

So the United States military introduced jammers, for instance. So things went full circle. Then the insurgents got more sophisticated in the tactics, the way that they laid these devices. So the EFP basically is a way of defeating the armor that the U.S. military has been installing on its vehicles.

CONAN: And as I understand it, the charges are that these caused the deaths of more than 170 Americans over three years, so these aren't new.

Mr. HODGE: Again as I've mentioned, I had first heard about these in 2005. And there was a series of reports last summer in the British press where the U.K. government has basically been charging that the Iranians were responsible also for EFP attacks, which had claimed about 17 - the lives of about 17 British troops in southern Iraq and Basra.

CONAN: What we hadn't seen was actually the displays of these EFPs and displays of some other associated equipment - RPG rounds and various kinds of mortar rounds - that the officials say look at these markings, they trace back to Iran.

Mr. HODGE: Well, this was sort of the first proof that they had actually furnished - that this actually, this technology, this hardware, was coming from Iran, and there was a lot of back-and-forth. It took several weeks, in fact, before they actually were able to settle on a time. And they called in a lot of press and they showed them.

Now all of this was sort of I think on background. They didn't actually - none of the officials were actually named. So that has given a little bit more ammunition to the skeptics who say that perhaps that there's some kind of cooking of intelligence going on here, that they are trying to make the case for - well, I think the fear is that there may be someone trying to make the case for more aggressive policy towards Iran.

CONAN: And there were also some conclusions about who authorized the smuggling of these weapons from Iran to Iraq. According to what we heard from that briefing yesterday, the highest levels in Iran. That would mean either the president, Mr. Ahmadinejad, or the religious clergy who are really in charge of Iran. And were there any evidence for that?

Mr. HODGE: Well interestingly enough, there have been a couple of reports, some interviews with President Ahmadinejad where he's been asked directly about whether or not Iran was supplying any weapons that were killing American soldiers, and he sort of danced around the question a little bit.

So again, there's not been sort of a very direct answer from Iran about that.

CONAN: The Foreign Ministry spokesman was a little bit more open about…

Mr. HODGE: He was a little bit…

CONAN: But the president himself was not.

Mr. HODGE: But interestingly enough, what I had first heard in 2005 was just rumored that the technology was coming from Iran.

CONAN: Now even if Iran was supplying, to take it for just a moment that this is accurate, that Iran was supplying - who were they supplying them to, and how did they end up getting used against American troops?

Mr. HODGE: Well, the allegation is that these kinds of sophisticated weapons are being supplied to the Mahdi Army, to Sadr's militia, to Shia militia groups. And this is coming also at a very interesting time when there's a U.S. surge. There's kind of questions about whether or not some of the surge is going to be aimed at a crackdown against these Shiite militia groups.

CONAN: Now what reasons were given for why the Iranian government would want to supply these groups with these sophisticated weapons?

Mr. HODGE: What reasons were given? Well, I think that this is again what's kind of raised the questions about the timing of all of this because, you know, the allegation is that these militias basically are clients of the Iranian government and that they are being used in some kind of proxy campaign against the United States.

CONAN: There were also some documents that were shown to reporters, or at least copies of them shown to reporters. These were the documents allegedly seized by U.S. forces in a couple of different raids, one on the headquarters of one of these militia groups in Baghdad, the SCIRI group, and another when an Iranian consulate, which apparently wasn't quite a consulate yet, didn't quite have diplomatic status, was raided and five Iranians arrested.

Mr. HODGE: Right, and then there was a recent interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates where he said that they had "policed-up," quote-unquote, some Iranians among the bad guys that they have rounded up in some of these raids. So it's not just a question of documents, (unintelligible) they're claiming to have actually arrested or detained some of the people who - the personnel who are actually involved in either the arming, the training, smuggling of these weapons materiel.

CONAN: One thing. What's been the reaction of the Iraqi government, and are they seemingly convinced that this is evidence against Iran?

Mr. HODGE: That's actually a really good question. I haven't seen a response from the Iraqi government. But it's important to point out that the Iraqi and the Iranian government, they do have relations. They've had them since 2003, the fall of Saddam Hussein. So this is a very delicate balancing act on the region.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the phone. If this evidence, if you look at it, does this convince you? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Jerry(ph), and Jerry's calling us from San Francisco.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. You know, a couple of points on this. One, I've already heard that this is not particularly news, that we've known about munitions coming in from Iran into Iraq for a long time. And I guess I kind of wanted to get some confirmation or response to that.

CONAN: Nathan Hodge already said he'd heard about these and reported on them going back to 2005. What is new is that the weapons themselves were on display, along with their identification numbers.

JERRY: All right. Well, then, the other question is simply this. I mean, there have been literally hundreds of books and articles written about the United States or the coalition, if you want to be generous, failing to plan for the post-war period, including not guarding the borders. And it shouldn't be a surprise to no one that these weapons are coming in. And to me at this point, convincing or not convincing is not the point. It's a little bit like murdering your parents and then complaining you're an orphan. Any response?

CONAN: Nathan?

Mr. HODGE: Well, there's definitely a good point to be made here about pre-war planning. If you look at just the basic IED threat, one of the reasons that it has been so deadly, so lethal, is that there was a failure early on in the war to secure these enormous weapons caches. Basically, as U.S. troops are racing to Baghdad, they were bypassing these very large conventional arms caches, artillery shells, mortar shells, rockets, everything. They just didn't have the manpower to police all that stuff up, to guard it. And these basically became a source for insurgents wanted to make roadside bombs.

CONAN: Or the manpower to, as Jerry points out, guard the borders and close off the borders whether from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan.

Mr. HODGE: Correct. Okay.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're going to hear three different views on the U.S. charges against Iran, and we'll begin with David Kay, who joins us now by phone from his home in Leesburg, Virginia. He's the former chief U.S. weapons inspector who resigned in 2004, saying Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

David Kay, nice to speak with you.

Mr. DAVID KAY (Former U.S. Weapons Inspector): Good to speak to you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder, what do you make of the evidence that was presented in Baghdad yesterday?

Mr. KAY: Well, my first reaction was déjà vu all over again to quote Casey Stengel.

CONAN: I don't mean to correct you, but I think Yogi Berra said that.

Mr. KAY: Yeah, yeah. Yogi Berra. One Yankee is the same as the other. You know, it was - this was exactly what the intelligence reform and the creation of a director of national intelligence was to avoid. Those charges were extraordinarily significant and strategic. They talked not only about the weapons, they talked about conversations with Iraqi leadership and how the Iraqi leadership, the Iranian leadership - pardon me - had decided to send those weapons. If that's true, it may well authorize military action against the Iranians.

To have an unnamed defense official in Baghdad make that charge I think leads one to suspect there may be other - be skeptical of it at least if you don't question the motives.

CONAN: So the simple fact of who was speaking, where, and for what attribution, these are important things to remember.

Mr. KAY: They are important things to me. Remember that in Baghdad you've just had, literally within the week, two senior military officials being replaced by two others for failure to in fact deal with the insurgency. You've got a lot of people who, on the surface of it, have a reason to find some cause for their failure of their own courses of action.

So I mean I have no doubt that the Iranians - Iranian weapons have made their way into Iraq. But that wasn't really the significance of the statement. As you've just discussed already on the program, we've known that for a number of years that weapons were coming across. It was directly tying this to a decision of the Iranian leadership that was significant.

CONAN: David Kay, stay with us and we'll take some questions from listeners after we get back from a break. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us talk@npr.org. And we'd like to thank Nathan Hodge for his time today. Nathan Hodge, a reporter at Jane's Defense Weekly, joined us here in studio 3A.

Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. HODGE: Thanks. Good to be here.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back with more of your calls and questions after a break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing reaction to a weekend news briefing in Baghdad where U.S. military officials, unnamed, laid out evidence that Iran supplies weapons to extremist Shiite factions in Iraq. In a few minutes we'll be joined by Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence agency.

Right now we're talking with David Kay, former chief U.S. weapons inspector, now a senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's see if we can get Khalid(ph). Khalid is with us from Saint Cloud in Minnesota.

KHALID (Caller): Close the door. Hello?

CONAN: Hello, Khalid, go ahead. You're on the air.

KHALID: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KHALID: I was just asking here a question about Iran. Ss you remember from before the pre-Iraq War, there's a trouble that's going on at Iraq. If this the same thing that's (unintelligible) to going on perhaps with Iraq, war with Iran. Number one question.

And number two, (unintelligible)

CONAN: I'm having trouble with your cell phone, Khalid, are you asking whether this equipment, this weaponry dates back to the Iran-Iraq war?

KHALID: I'm sorry. This is my simple question. Is this the finding of evidence with the highest leadership of Iranians and supporting the insurgents and all the so-called evidences that they found yesterday, as you're mentioning, with unnamed military officials. My questions is like, is this sort pre-war groundwork, pre-war groundwork.

CONAN: Oh I see. Is this leading up to a new war with Iran?

KHALID: Yes, it's ending up…

CONAN: Okay.

KHALID: Hey that's the first question. The second question is, my question here is like every (unintelligible) North Korea, and according to U.S. claims itself that North Korea has atomic weapon already. We're not doing anything and we're still doing the so-called six party talks. How come we're not attacking or having any so-called preparation for war with North Korea? But why we're going after Iran where Iran officially declaring that there is no…

CONAN: No nuclear weapons.

KHALID: …nuclear weapons.

CONAN: David Kay, we have - I think we have someone who can answer those questions.

KHALID: Frankly, I just want to see why…

CONAN: Yeah. Why don't we let David Kay answer. David?

Mr. KAY: Well, I think Khalid's point about the skepticism is likely to arise from these charges, as to whether they're not just a prelude to military action, is one that the administration has to deal with. And that's why I think in fact the way they released this information really undercut their case: Unnamed defense official in Baghdad, of all places, making charges about senior national leadership of Iran. You know, those are very, very serious charges. And if they're going to made, I would have expected them to come in Washington. In fact, if asked, I would have urged the administration to in fact empower a group of graybeards outside to examine the evidence and to report to the director of national intelligence and make it available there.

We simply have to recognize much of the world, and even a significant part of our own population, is very skeptical of claims about what intelligence shows after WMD. And those charges were far too serious to just be, with non-attribution, be released on the weekend.

CONAN: And about Khalid's other point, different treatments of Iran and North Korea. Well, in fact, the United States is involved in multi-lateral talks with them both.

Mr. KAY: They're in both - well, they're certainly involved in multi-lateral talks with the North Koreans directly in Beijing right now. The talks with Iran have been less direct, mostly in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency and not as direct as a lot of us think they should be. The difference right now is we're involved on the ground in Iraq, right next door to Iran.

And so this issue, you know, has a seriousness. There are hundreds - soon-to-be almost 160,000 Americans on the ground, so we should be concerned. But the way it's been handled certainly does lead to some justified skepticism about it.

CONAN: Okay. Khalid, thanks very much for the call.

And let's see if we can go to - this is Osama(ph). Osama is with us from Bloomfield in Michigan.

OSAMA (Caller): Hi. I'm glad you didn't close the line on me when you said Osama.

CONAN: That's all right. Go ahead, please.

OSAMA: I have a quick question with regards to the evidence that came out yesterday. Is there any specifics as to whether this could have been equipment, which could have been sent from Iran to the Shia revolutionaries or counter-Saddamists. I can't figure out the word right now, from the Iran-Iraq war.

And another question I would have with regards to that is why would the administration, knowing that it is already overstretched in troop numbers and that it's pretty much (unintelligible) down in Iraq and can't get out, why would the administration - what was the point of releasing such information that could be damning to Iran and could possibly result in another military action against it?

CONAN: David Kay, is there a suggestion that these - some of this weaponry might be left over from Iran-Iraq or from earlier uprising against Saddam?

Mr. KAY: Well, you have to realize I'm relying on the accuracy of the reporting that came out under the difficult conditions that existed in Baghdad. The serial numbers and data manufacturers that were cited, I think the earliest was around 2005; one was 2006. So these looked like they were, in fact, more recently produced.

But the listener has a good point. For example, the first EFP was actually in 2003. It was used against an Abrams tank, in fact took an Abrams tank out. Everyone, I was in Baghdad at that time, everyone was greatly concerned. It turned out to be Czech-produced RPG that Saddam had acquired.

The administration spokesman yesterday I think made a little bit too much about how these are exotic weapons. EFPs are in the armory of the Syrians, they're certainly in the armory of the Iranians. The Chinese have produced a lot.

And smuggling on that border is not always under the control of either government, either Iran or Iraq. That border is a smuggling route of historic proportion. So I need to see the evidence, which I certainly didn't see in what was released, that this in fact was a direct authorized Iranian government operation.

CONAN: Osama, thanks for the call.

OSAMA: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks to David Kay for his time today. David, appreciate it.

Mr. KAY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: David Kay was chief U.S. weapons inspector in 2003 and currently he's a senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute in northern Virginia. He joined us by phone from his home in Leesburg.

For another view, we turn now to Richard Kerr. He was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1989 to 1992. He joins us by phone from his home in Vero Beach in Florida.

Nice to speak with you again.

Mr. RICHARD KERR (Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency): It's a pleasure. TEXT: CONAN: And do you find this evidence as presented in Baghdad yesterday, do you find it credible?

Mr. KERR: Well, it's - you know, first of all, as David said a moment ago, it's very hard to know the full range of intelligence that is available. There are some references to material well beyond the explosive devices, so there's discussion of the border cross-points.

My assumption is that the intelligence community has rather a significant amount of information beyond that presented, which they're not going to provide in detail because they don't want to compromise their sources, from technical sources and human sources. But the…

CONAN: Yet as David Kay has said and as I think a lot of people would conclude, they also know that they have a very high bar to cross with the American public and indeed the world.

Mr. KERR: Well, certainly, they do. But does that mean you reveal all your information, the sensitive information you have? After all, they're not - there's a limit I think to how far they should go or be willing to go. I understand the problem of a high bar, but there has to be some confidence in the intelligence community.

People really do not understand, I don't think, well enough what the limitations are and what the expectation should be for intelligence. But the - as someone who did the review of all the intelligence produced prior to the war, I think you have to be very careful about the assumptions you make about the intelligence community and whether it is providing the best picture it can or not.

Even then, they believed what they said about the weapons of mass destruction. They were not deceiving anybody; it happens they were wrong. They didn't ask the right questions and they based their judgments on some older information.

But to then conclude that because that happened several years ago that they're not - one, they haven't learned a great deal - and they have - and that they haven't changed their procedures - and they have - I think is a very serious error.

CONAN: Let's see if we're going to have a caller in. And this is Dennis. Dennis with us from Kent in Connecticut.

DENNIS (Caller): Yes, sir. I was wondering if these new EFPs are the same old armaments as the shaped charges that were being used for years. That is have them being machined in Iraq to melt an alloy and direct the projectile as an armor piercing projectile. I think giving it a new name of EFPs, are these the same?

Mr. KERR: You know, I'm not a munitions expert. What I heard, what I saw described in the papers doesn't sound to me like the thing you're referring to, the shaped charges. But it, you know, it is an older weapon. As I think David said earlier, it's a weapon - it's not a question of whether it's new or old. It's a question of what's the source of it, who's providing it.

DENNIS: (Unintelligible) ammunitions are being used, some of those ammunitions that were taken from depots in Iraq itself.

Mr. KERR: Well, again, David cited the factory markings on some of those, indicating they were produced in '05 and '06. That's pretty recent. So that's well, you know, that's not stocks from the Iraq-Iran War.

CONAN: And again, according the reporting of this news conference, the officials - unnamed - said there was a machining involved which was beyond the capability of arms manufactures, at least now, in Iraq.

DENNIS: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, Dennis. Thanks very much for the call.

Given the level of skepticism and - do you suspect - I mean we've heard for the past couple of months really about arguments over what kind of evidence to produce to back up the repeated claims of Iraqi weapons smuggling into Iran, into Iraq, excuse me.

Mr. KERR: Well, my assumption - I think you have to start kind of father back from that point. It seems to me the Iranians have real motivations for supplying and supporting some of the Shiites in Iraq. I mean what - they are interested in, one, getting us out of the Middle East, making it as difficult for us as possible in Iraq, and everything motivates them to do that.

If you really believe they would do nothing to support that objective, I think you're being terribly naïve. Now, exactly what are they doing? Again, I don't have access to the detailed intelligence. But my guess is we do know of routes coming across, we do know of information that somehow ties people back into the IPRG.

So you know, how detailed that is - let me give you an example. If we have that kind of information on a Soviet activity during the Cold War in another area of the world, people would have no question about the authenticity of it. It is primarily based on what has happened in the problem of weapons of mass destruction and the intelligence shortcomings, legitimate criticism of the intelligence community.

CONAN: But it's…

Mr. KERR: I would just say don't make the assumption that they haven't learned and aren't doing significantly - things significantly different.

CONAN: And quickly, what David Kaye said was the important point in this, is the allegation that this has been authorized from the highest levels in Iran, which makes this more significant than just some rogue faction smuggling some arms across.

Mr. KERR: Well, there's no question. And I don't know if there is linkage to the - it's always been hard, by the way, to link terrorism or other activities to the senior leadership. You know, can you link Hezbollah activity in Syria or earlier to the Iranians? Well, yes, you can link it to the Iranians. Can you link it to the leadership telling them to do it? These are very tough things we're dealing with. We're not dealing with kind of written instructions that you can kind of find and then reveal. This is a much more subtle kind of - set of relationships.

CONAN: Richard Kerr, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Mr. KERR: You're welcome.

CONAN: Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He joined us today by telephone from Vero Beach in Florida. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And now a long-time skeptic of the U.S. mission in Iraq. John Mearsheimer is a political science professor at the University of Chicago, author of the book "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics." He joins us today from the studios at the University of Chicago. And it's good to speak with you again, professor.

Professor JOHN MEARSHEIMER (University of Chicago): It's good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And let's begin with a question I asked our two previous guests. What do you make of the evidence that was presented yesterday in Baghdad?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that the evidence if quite vague. As David Kaye pointed out, they provided virtually no evidence that there was a master plan here on the part of the Iranian leadership to do anything in particular in Iraq. So there's all sorts of reasons to be skeptical of that argument.

With regard to the question of whether or not these weapons are Iranian weapons or not, I think it is quite clear from the evidence, at least from the reports in the newspapers about the evidence, that some of the weapons are Iranian weapons. And by the way, there were not only EFPs or these shape charges that were displayed, they also displayed mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

There were a handful of different kinds of weapons that the Iranians are said to be giving to the Iraqis. But this raises all sorts of questions. Who in Iran is providing the Iraqis with these weapons. And if they are providing Iraq with these weapons, why are they providing them with the weapons?

Many people say that they're aimed at American troops. That's certainly plausible. But it's also possible that the Iranians are arming particular Iraqi groups because they want to see them win the civil war that's now taking place and is almost sure to blossom should the United States pull out at some point in time.

So there are just all sorts of questions that are left open by these briefings.

CONAN: And if indeed they were used against American troops, it's not necessarily true. I mean once weapons enter a new country, they can find their way to all sorts of end users that maybe the original source didn't intend.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: That's exactly right. I mean you could have rogue factions on both sides of the borders here. You could have a rogue faction in Iran that's providing different groups in Iraq with those weapons and then rogue factions inside Iraq could be selling the weapons to other groups who could be using them.

I'm not saying that this is likely, but it is plausible. And the fact is that based on what we now know, we just don't have enough evidence to conclude one way or the other what exactly is going on here. And given the gravity of the charges that are being leveled at Iran, this is a cause of great concern.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the line. Anne joins us. Anne calling us from Taos, New Mexico.

ANNE (Caller): Hi, Neal?

CONAN: Yes, go ahead please.

ANNE: Yeah. I want to say first off that I'm really - I have been for months very scared about the administration's - what I call build-up to this sort of thing with Iran. I feel like - that they are, they have some greater scheme, which is far beyond my comprehension, from Somalia through the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, into the broader reaches.

Gates says that there is no intention, the administration has no intention of invading or any sort of confrontation with Iran. But intention means nothing until they're provoked and then they - and then they have some sort of reason.

CONAN: And the question being, is this a part of that provocation or if not the entirety of a provocation, at least…

ANNE: Well, the question…

CONAN: …part of a case, is what you're saying.

ANNE: Well, it's actually a comment, ultimately, is that I feel like they've been priming the public for some sort of military intervention. And I just want somebody to stop it. Congress, so ineffectual, has to like do some sort of oversight on this. It seems like whether it's true or not, with…

CONAN: Anne, we're running out of time for this segment.

ANNE: Right. Well, if it's true or not with the Iranians and these weapons, another war that could provoke vast destruction and unrest and death, is that the answer?

CONAN: Anne, thanks very much. We'll get a response from John Mearsheimer after we come back from a short break.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And let's continue now our conversation about evidence presented against Iran yesterday at a news conference by unnamed American military officials in Baghdad. Our guest is John Mearsheimer, professor of political science and co-director to the program on international security policy at the University of Chicago.

And just before the break, Professor Mearsheimer, our caller from Taos, New Mexico was expressing doubt about this, as part of what she feared was an overall campaign to build up pressure on Iran, a campaign that she sees progressing throughout the region.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, there's no question that there are lots of people in the country, including inside the Beltway, who believe that the Bush administration is laying the groundwork for an attack on Iran. It would not be a land-based invasion. What it would be - be an air attack against the nuclear facilities in Iran, especially the places where enrichment of uranium is taking place.

It would be foolish in the extreme, I believe, and I think most Americans believe, for the United States to attack those Iranian nuclear facilities. But nevertheless it is possible that that is what the Bush administration is thinking. Now, there's no question that Secretary Gates denies that.

But as you know, before the Iraq War on numerous occasions high-level officials in the Bush administration denied that they were planning to go to war against Iraq. But nevertheless, we now know from all sorts of books by people like Bob Woodward and others that the Bush administration indeed was planning to go to war against Iraq.

So when they say they're not planning for a war against Iran at this point in time, it's hard to be confident that they're telling the truth, given that they haven't always told us the truth in the past.

CONAN: And it should be noted that as this announcement was being made in Baghdad, a second U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle group arrived in the region, the Stennis Battle Group ordered there by President Bush, openly…

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: And they're talking about sending a third one, Neal.

CONAN: Yes. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Bob, and Bob's calling us from New York City.

BOB (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

BOB: Yeah. I believe the evidence. I've been reading on the Internet and various sources about this evidence for a long time. Now, we've actually been in an indirect war with Iran since the Islamic revolution. They, through their proxy Hezbollah, they killed our Marines in Beirut when we went on a peacekeeping mission.

On every day, practically every day we hear proclamations from Ahmadinejad about how he is going to destroy Israel and the Great Satan, the United States. So I mean what more do we need? To get hit over the head with a mallet to believe it?

CONAN: Well, John Mearsheimer, the enmity between the United States and Iran is certainly no secret, as Bob points out.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yeah. That's what I'd say, Neal. There's no question that the United States and Iran have been adversaries since 1979, and indeed they've been bitter adversaries. In fact, we were closely allied with Saddam Hussein between 1980 and 1988 because he was fighting a war against Iran.

But the issue on the table here is whether or not Iran is contributing in meaningful ways the problems that we're facing in Iraq. What happened with Hezbollah in the 1980s is largely irrelevant here. And Bob says that we've seen this evidence for quite a while now, or for a long time, to quote him, about Iran's activities in Iraq, I think is wrong.

And in fact, earlier this month, I think it was on February 2nd, the national security advisor, Steve Hadley, said that the administration was taking a briefing that they were prepared to give to the public and sending it back to the briefers and telling them to clean it up and get the facts straight. Because what he saw overstated the case.

So the fact of the matter is that the administration is only now beginning to put out on the table the evidence for their position that Iran is a serious problem for the United States in Iraq.

CONAN: Bob, thanks for the call.

And let me ask you, John Mearsheimer, about the point Richard Kerr, the former deputy director of the CIA, made. Just because the intelligence community got it so badly wrong in the run-up to the war against Iraq, he says, don't think that necessarily they haven't learned anything or that their procedures aren't better and that this might not be accurate this time around.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that he's surely correct that the intelligence community is going to be more careful this time around and more likely to get things correct, but I actually don't believe the intelligence community was the problem in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

I believe that the White House and the Pentagon were the principal threat inflators in the run-up to that war. And here, in this particular case, I see the White House, especially Vice President Cheney, and the Pentagon, again in the forefront of making the case that Iran is causing us very serious problems in Iraq.

When I see the White House and the Pentagon and not the intelligence community out front on this issue, it makes me very nervous.

CONAN: John Mearsheimer, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. MEARSHEIMER: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: John Mearsheimer is a professor of political science and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. He joins us today from a studio on the campus at the University of Chicago.

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