The role of real journalists is to question every allegation made by officials of whatever stripe.
If you work for the New York Times, however, you like to give anonymity to a motley collection of “American officials” to talk about allegedly malign Iranian influence on the world. Because of course Washington’s influence is so benign (Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has a few words to say about this, too).
Here’s the White House press release, or the New York Times:
Just hours after it was revealed that American soldiers had burned Korans seized at an Afghan detention center in late February, Iran secretly ordered its agents operating inside Afghanistan to exploit the anticipated public outrage by trying to instigate violent protests in the capital, Kabul, and across the western part of the country, according to American officials.
For the most part, the efforts by Iranian agents and local surrogates failed to provoke widespread or lasting unrest, the officials said. Yet with NATO governments preparing for the possibility of retaliation by Iran in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, the issue of Iran’s willingness and ability to foment violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere has taken on added urgency.
With Iran’s motives and operational intentions a subject of intense interest, American officials have closely studied the episodes. A mixed picture of Iranian capabilities has emerged, according to interviews with more than a dozen government officials, most of whom discussed the risks on the condition of anonymity because their comments were based on intelligence reports.
One United States government official described the Iranian Embassy in Kabul as having “a very active” program of anti-American provocation, but it is not clear whether Iran deliberately chose to limit its efforts after the Koran burning or was unable to carry out operations that would have caused more significant harm.
Iran has long faced a quandary in shaping an Afghan policy. It has wanted to target the Americans fighting in Afghanistan, and the best mechanism for doing that is the Taliban insurgency. But at the same time, Iran has little interest in the return of a Taliban regime. When they were in power, the Taliban often persecuted the Hazara minority, who, like most Iranians, are Shiite, and whom Iran supports.
What Iran has pursued more relentlessly is an effort to pull the Afghan government away from the Americans, a strategy that has included payments to promote Iran’s interests with President Hamid Karzai.
One American intelligence analyst noted that Iran had long supported Afghan minorities, both Shiite and Sunni, and had built a network of support among Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks. Iran has exercised other means of “soft power,” the analyst said, opening schools in western Afghanistan to extend its influence. The Iranians have also opened schools in Kabul and have largely financed a university attached to a large new Shiite mosque.
Iran is thought to back at least eight newspapers in Kabul and a number of television and radio stations, according to Afghan and Western officials. The Iranian-backed news organs kept fanning anti-American sentiment for days after the Koran burnings.