16.2.07

LEE HARVEY AHMADINEJAD? Look who else is buying mail-order rifles.
Well, here's an item that doesn't seem to have been manufactured by Dick Cheney. According to a report in Britain's Daily Telegraph, U.S. forces in Baghdad have recently discovered 100 high-powered sniper rifles made by Austrian gun-maker Steyr-Mannlicher. The .50-caliber Steyr can accurately fire an armor-piercing round at a range of 1,500 meters. The weapon is good against Humvees, helicopters and body armor.
And, as is the case with mail-order rifles, the buyer has the opportunity to lie about their end use.

In 2004, Iran purchased some 800 Steyrs, allegedly for use against drug traffickers. At the time, both U.S. and British officials urged the Austrian government to bar the $15 million sale, fearing the weapons would fall into enemy hands. Former Austrian Chancellor Wolfang Schüssel thought otherwise, and let the deal go forward. To better grease the skids, then-Steyr-Mannlicher CEO Wolfgang Fürlinger made the case that the weapons were basically harmless and that Tehran had signed "end-user certificates" guaranteeing they would not be re-sold, according to the German newsweekly Der Spiegel.

Today, the Austrian government pleads that the sale had been "checked very thoroughly," and that "what happened to the weapons . . . is the responsibility of the Iranians"--which prompts the question of why the Austrians would have bothered with the end-user certificates. The Bush Administration took a less cavalier view and in 2005 banned Steyr-Mannlicher from bidding for U.S. government contracts.

It remains to be confirmed whether the serial numbers on the Steyrs found in Iraq match those from the 2004 sale--if they do, it ought to prompt a top-to-bottom review of all Austrian military contracts. Meantime, is it too much to expect American journalists and Members of Congress to devote as much skepticism to Iran's motives and behavior as they do to Mr. Bush's?

I'd rephrase that last question. Journalists and Members are in a better position to influence U.S., as opposed to Iranian, government policy. Perhaps, however, the former misunderstand their role, which is to report, not to advocate, and among the latter, some have forgotten that the Opposition is still supposed to be loyal.

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