Yesterday, the New Yorker published Dexter Filkins profile of Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani. Filkins had a sterling reputation when he wrote for the New York Times, and I expected something that was up to that standard. But I didn’t find it. In fact, I found the piece to be shockingly loose, filled with unsourced assumptions parading as fact, anonymous sourcing or, when sources were mentioned at all, invariably they took on a decidedly neocon flavor, including American Enterprise Institute analysts and former-CIA Islamophobe, Reuel Marc Gerecht.
Considering the New Yorker’s reputation for rigorous fact-checking, I felt let down by the quality of this piece.
As an example, Filkins repeats the unsubstantiated claim that Suleimani was the author of the plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington DC. He also recycles another claim that Hezbollah was the author of the Burgas terror bombing. And most oddly, he seems to somehow know that at the Tehran funeral for a leading IRG commander, Suleimani sat in the second row and wore black pants and shirt. It’s precisely this sort of novelistic detail that is both impressive and suspect at the same time. It means that either Filkins was in the room at the time, or that he spoke with one of the Iranians who was. Given relations between Iran and the U.S., I find it unlikely an IRG commander or senior Iranian cleric who might’ve been in the room would be speaking to him. I certainly can’t rule this out as a possibility, but the passage does raise questions in my mind as to how much of the rest of the piece is well-founded.
That being said, there were two eye-opening passages for me. The first was part of a long interview with Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. diplomat who was our ambassador to Iraq (where much of Filkins’ piece was sourced). In speaking about Hezbollah’s role in forcing Israel’s exit from southern Lebanon in 2000, Crocker says this:
…The Israeli military had occupied southern Lebanon for sixteen years, and Hezbollah was eager to take control of the country, so Suleimani sent in Quds Force operatives to help. “They had a huge presence—training, advising, planning,” Crocker said. In 2000, the Israelis withdrew, exhausted by relentless Hezbollah attacks. It was a signal victory for the Shiites, and, Crocker said, “another example of how countries like Syria and Iran can play a long game, knowing that we can’t.”
If you parse this paragraph carefully and note the “we” in the last line, one extraordinary assumption is evident in Crocker’s world-view: there is no separation between Israel and the U.S. Though it was Israel that was forced to withdraw from Lebanon, Crocker sees it as “our” withdrawal. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that consciously or unconsciously Crocker sees Israel as carrying out U.S. policy in the region. It’s almost as if Israel’s occupation of Lebanon was a job done on the U.S.’ behalf.
Another bit of sloppiness that entered into this passage is this: “Hezbollah was eager to take control of the country.” As I wrote above, Filkins doesn’t explain whose point of view he’s offering and from whence this claim derives. But Hezbollah certainly does not control Lebanon. It is a major player within the country. But there are other counter-balancing political movements within Lebanon that prevent the Islamist group from dominating. It is certainly true that Hezbollah dominates the south and the Bekaa Valley in the east bordering Syria. But aside from this, Filkins’ claim is false.
The second passage that caught my eye was this:
After a Hezbollah operative attacked a tour bus filled with Israelis in Bulgaria, last July, American authorities learned that Suleimani had asked his subordinates, “Does anyone know about this?” No one did. “Hezbollah acted on its own in that one,” an American defense official told me.
As I wrote above, no one has definitively proven that Hezbollah masterminded Burgas. So to make this statement without even offering a source is irresponsible. That being said, the passage indicates that American officials know that Iran was not involved in Burgas. Such knowledge, if true, becomes very important in reviewing this claim by Bibi Netanyahu shortly after the attack (my translation):
In Jerusalem…there were no doubts. PM Bibi Netanyahu’s finger officially pointed toward Iran in the wake of the terror attack which killed Israelis in Bulgaria, supported apparently, by relatively detailed intelligence data. The man behind the attack on the tourist bus in Burgas was General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, who commands terror activities abroad on its behalf.
There are two possibilities: either Israeli intelligence was wrong (and U.S. right); or it didn’t have any evidence and Bibi made it up. I’m prepared to believe either possibility. But given Bibi’s propensity for lying, I certainly can’t discount the latter possibility.