WASHINGTON — A senior State Department official, toughening the administration's line on Iran, said Tuesday that there was no doubt the top leaders in Tehran were directing Iranian forces that the administration is holding responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Senior Iraq advisor David Satterfield said "there is no question in our minds whatsoever" that Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops "are very much under the direction and command of the most senior levels of the Iranian government. Full stop."
The administration has repeatedly charged that Iranian troops and agents are shipping sophisticated explosives into Iraq, training Iraqi militants and taking other actions counter to American goals. However, U.S. military officials have released no conclusive evidence that Iranian weapons and training were supplied by top authorities in Tehran, and have been careful not to say whether they believe senior or lower-level government officials are involved.
Iran has denied providing military aid to combatants in Iraq.
Satterfield's comments to reporters at a media breakfast come as senior administration officials have been speaking out forcefully on Iran. President Bush warned last week that World War III was possible if Tehran acquired the capability to build a nuclear weapon, and Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that the United States and its allies would not allow Iran to build a bomb.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, said Satterfield's comments reflected "the growing frustration the administration is feeling about this" because officials believe Tehran has not heeded warnings to scale back its alleged activities in Iraq.
Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution, said the Defense Department might be more guarded in its comments because "the Pentagon is well aware that its forces are overstretched and vulnerable. They are well aware of Iran's capacity to retaliate."
Though he has strongly criticized some aspects of the administration's Mideast policies, Riedel added that he believed Satterfield was correct in stating that the senior Iranian leadership is directing the operations in Iraq.
The issue of Tehran's role first spilled into public view at the beginning of the year, when the administration began publicizing accusations of Iranian involvement in increasingly sophisticated roadside bombings of U.S. troops.
At a February briefing with reporters in Baghdad, an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, asserted that the operatives who had provided the advanced explosives were being directed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the days that followed, however, senior Pentagon officials backtracked from that assertion, saying there was no intelligence available that pointed to central government involvement.
"It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it's clear that materials from Iran are involved," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said shortly after the Baghdad briefing. "But I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit."
Private experts on the Quds Force, a special unit of the Revolutionary Guard linked by U.S. authorities to the weapons and training, say there is widespread disagreement about the group's ties to Khamenei. The administration and military officers have largely stood by that view in public in the ensuing months.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, in last month's high-profile assessment of Iraqi security, appeared to be intentionally vague on the point, saying only that Iran was acting "through the use of the Quds Force." Previously, he had specifically declined to link Quds' actions to the Iranian political leadership.
"I do not know of anything that specifically identifies how high it goes beyond the level of the Quds Force, Cmdr. Suleimani," Petraeus said in April, referring to Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the unit's commander. "Beyond that, it is very difficult to tell.
"We know where he is in the overall chain of command; he certainly reports to the very top," Petraeus said. "But again, nothing that would absolutely indicate, again, how high the knowledge of this actually goes."
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.