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Iran in Bush's Sights
by Juan Cole
July 25, 2004
First Published in Informed Comment

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The same techniques used to get up the Iraq war are now being applied by the political Right in the United States, including President Bush, to Iran. These include innuendo, guilt by association, vague fears, and hyped capabilities. If Bush gets a second term, it seems very likely that his administration will make war on Iran.

The current round of sabre rattling by Washington against Tehran began with some passages in the report of the 9/11 commission, leaked to Time magazine, that revealed that 8 to 10 of the largely Saudi "muscle" or "newskin" hijackers sent by Bin Laden (to help control the flight attendants and passengers for the al-Qaeda pilots) had passed through Iran on their way to the United States over a period of several months. This passage would be unremarkable in and of itself.

The 9/11 commission maintains, however, according to Time magazine, that Iranian officials had issued specific instructions to facilitate the passage of al-Qaeda members across Iranian borders, beginning in October, 2000.

The commission also alleges that Iranian officials came to al-Qaeda after the bombing of the USS Cole and suggested they team up to attack the US, but that Bin Laden turned down the offer for fear of alienating his Wahhabi supporters in Saudi Arabia by associating himself with Shiite Iran.

One problem with all these allegations is that they are sourced only to al-Qaeda detainees, Iranian defectors, and NSA electronic intercepts. It is the same as with Iraq in 2002. For all we know, there is an Iranian Chalabi who is behind these reports, hoping to get the US to overthrow the regime in Iran so that he can take over. As for the al-Qaeda detainees or those under electronic surveillance, the letter of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has already made it clear that some radical Sunni elements that fought in Afghanistan dream of provoking a Shiite-American struggle. Al-Qaeda detainees are notorious for providing the US with disinformation aimed at furthering their plots. Iran is a notorious enemy of Wahhabism and al-Qaeda and the Taliban. How sweet it would be to provoke a war between the US and Iran by hanging 9/11 on Tehran! (It should be remembered that NSA intercepts also showed that Saddam had biological and chemical weapons, presumably because Saddam ordered his officers to talk them up in the vain hope of deterring a US attack).

Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin has already admitted that a) the US has known for a long time that al-Qaeda operatives travelled through Iran, and b) that there is no evidence that Iran knew beforehand about the 9/11 plot.

Iranian officials have acknowledged that the al-Qaeda men passed through its territory, but point out that Iran's borders are long and porous, and insisted that the al-Qaeda operatives came through "illegally."
Iran’s intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, said on Saturday that "The Intelligence Ministry has identified and dismantled all the Iranian branches of the Al Qaeda movement . . . We have stopped the terrorist acts of Al Qaeda. If we had not done so, we would have had security problems.”

Another problem is that Iran does not have a tight, unified government. The Iranian state consists of a number of competing power centers. In recent years the president, Mohammad Khatami, has supported more civil liberties and an opening to the West. The Supreme Jurisprudent, Ali Khamenei, is an old-style Khomeinist who revels in puritanical theocracy and hates the US. Even Khamenei, however, is not implicated in ever having planned direct action against US soil. Then there are the Basij and Revolutionary Guards and Quds Brigade paramilitaries, and it is unclear how much central control the state has over them. So even if some official in the Revolutionary Guards did let al-Qaeda operatives in (and this is by no means proven), it would not necessarily say much about the stance of the Iranian government(s).

Some close US allies assert that Iran's role in fighting terrorism has been positive. Iraq's current ambassador to the United States, Rend Rahim Franke,
said recently that Iran had prevented some 200 fighters from transiting its territory from Afghanistan to flood into Iraq and carry out terrorist attacks in her country, according to the Boston Globe:

Iran so far has had a positive role in Iraq, and the Iraqi government recently asked it to cooperate even more on security, including sharing more intelligence, Rend al-Rahim Francke, chief of Iraq's diplomatic mission in Washington, said in an interview with the Associated Press. Rahim said she believes these overtures prompted Iran recently to capture 200 Afghan fighters who were trying to enter Iraq from Iran. She offered few details about the detentions, which had not been previously known. Last week, Iraq's human rights minister said only one Afghan was in custody -- one of 99 foreign fighters held in the country . . . Rahim rejected any suggestion that Iran supports terrorism in Iraq. ''It is not in Iran's interest for Iraq to be in turmoil," she said. ''If Iraq turns into a haven for terrorists, not only Iraq but all countries in the region will be affected." . . .

The rightwing media in the US used to hang on Franke's every word when she was promoting a war against Iraq, but now that she is serving as witness for Iran's good behavior, they are completely ignoring her important testimony. (Franke seemed to be contradicted Tuesday by the Sunni ex-Baathists in the caretaker government, who worry about Iran supporting militant Shiite militias).

Iran has admitted to having taken some al-Qaeda operatives captive after September 11, but it is holding them for some quid pro quos from the United States. In particular, Iran wants to ensure that the US does not allow the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) terrorist organization to continue to hit Iran from its bases in Iraq, and the al-Qaeda detainees are among its only bits of leverage over Washington in this regard. (Amazingly enough, there are political forces in Washington, including the Neocon-dominated, pro-Israeli "Washington Institute for Near East Policy," that support the MEK terrorist organization and want the Bush administration to, as well. Even scarier, WINEP, this supporter of a notorious terrorist group, is highly influential in Washington and US military and State Department personnel are actually detailed there to learn about the Middle East!).

Iran's claim that the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda agents that came across its territory did so illegally should be easy to prove, right? If the operatives had come through Iran legally, there would have been Iranian stamps in their passports. But there weren't. If there had been, that would have triggered Immigration and Naturalization Service interviews with them and made it more difficult for them to get into the US. Ipso facto, Iran did not officially allow them through its passport control.

But, as usual with these things, there is a counter-argument.

Ali Nourizadeh
, an expatriate Iranian journalist in London, published a piece in the London Saudi daily, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, claiming that al-Qaeda fighters were given safe passage through Iran and allowed to avoid passport stamps by a sympathetic general of the Revolutionary Guards. Thus the lack of Iranian passport stamps in their passports, which would seem to exonerate Iran, is here used as proof of Iranian collusion!

Nourizadeh in the past has attempted to play up an Iran - al-Qaeda connection, going so far as to allege that Iran's Revolutionary Guards allow al-Qaeda operatives like Sulaiman Abu Ghaith and Saif al-Adl to move freely in the country and to plan and carry out attacks on neighbors like Saudi Arabia. Nourizadeh's sources are always shadowy dissidents in the Iranian Foreign Ministry whom he declines to name, and he never gives any evidence for his assertions, many of which seem highly unlikely to be true, to say the least.

As always in Middle East politics, we should begin with the Common Sense test and then go on to the "In who's Interest is this Odd Allegation?" test.

Here is the Common Sense test: Usama Bin Laden is a fanatical Sunni Muslim surrounded by other fanatical Sunni Muslims and was nested in the Taliban, who are fanatical Sunni Muslims. Iran is Shiite, a branch of Islam that fanatical Sunni Muslims absolutely hate. In Afghan politics, 1996-2002, at the time it was dominated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Iran was allied with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Iran was trying to overthrow the Taliban and crush them and al-Qaeda.

Iran's allies in Afghanistan were the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and especially the Hazaras. The Hazaras are Afghan Shiites. They form about 15% of the Afghan population. The Hazaras' main political vehicle was the Hizb-i Vahdat or Unity Party, which was and is closely allied with Iran. Tajik warlords in the Northern Alliance like Ismail Khan, who are Sunnis, also have strong ties of language and patronage to Iran. Basically, Persian speakers in Afghanistan tended to side with Iran, especially Shiite Persian speakers. Whereas Pushtu speakers and immigrant Arabs tended to side instead with Pakistan.

When the Taliban took Mazar-i Sharif,
they massacred Iranian intelligence ("diplomatic") personnel in that city. Iran mobilized for war against the Taliban at that point, and a war was narrowly averted.

Pakistan's Sunni fundamentalist-dominated military, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence or military intelligence, had more or less created the Taliban and heavily supported them with equipment, training, fuel and other goods.

Iran and Pakistan were engaged in a regional struggle for influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, in which Iran's Shiism and Pakistan's Sunnism were ideological tools. This struggle spilled over into Pakistan itself. The radical Sunni Sipah-i Sahabah or Companions of the Prophet, originating in Jhang Siyal in northern Punjab, has conducted a terrorist campaign of assassination against Shiites in Pakistan. Sipah-i Sahabah was one of the jihadi groups that got training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and was allied with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Several other radical Pakistani jihadi groups were in the same position. They killed hundreds of Shiites in Pakistan, especially Karachi and the Punjab. At one point Iranian attaches at the Karachi embassy were assassinated, probably by these same groups.

So in 1996-2002 there was a behind the scenes war between Shiite Iran and Sunni jihadis, with Afghanistan and Pakistan being the main battlefields. At one point in the late 1990s, it almost became a real, hot war.

So then you come to me and say that in 2000 and 2001, Iran was actively helping al-Qaeda and was trying to ally with it. And I say, that sounds to me like complete gibberish and I would only accept it if you show me excellent documentary proof.

It would be like saying that you had evidence that Roosevelt let German Nazi agents cross the United States to carry out an operation against Mao's forces in China during World War II. Well, on the face of it, the fascists would not have wanted the Communists to get China, so such a covert operation wouldn't be out of the question. And the US would certainly have in principle welcomed anything that would have helped the Nationalists. So you could argue yourself into thinking that the proposition isn't completely crazy. But if you just step back, you can see that geo-political speculation doesn't carry much weight in such a situation, and the whole idea is obviously crazy. That is how I feel about the idea that Khamenei cozied up to Bin Laden.

The second test is Who is Helped by these Crazy Allegations?

* The Likud lobby in Washington, especially Michael Ledeen, Michael Rubin and other warmongers. They want the Tehran regime overthrown in part because it stands in the way of an Israeli annexation of southern Lebanon, with the Litani river as the long-sought prize. Iran is allied with Hizbullah in southern Lebanon, which forced the Israelis back out of Lebanon with a nearly 20-year long guerrilla struggle. They also want to force Hizbullah to pull back its support of the Palestinian uprising. Since Iran has substantially cut back on its support for Hizbullah, however, overthrowing Tehran would have little effect on such local political dynamics. (The Likud's Ariel Sharon should never have invaded Lebanon in 1982, which is what created Hizbullah, suicide bombings as a tactic, and radicalized Lebanese like 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah).

* Old-time US intelligence and diplomatic officials who have a grudge with Iran over the Hostage Crisis and other Iranian actions against the US in the 1980s

* The US military-industrial complex, which is frustrated at not being able to extract money from the potentially wealthy Iranian market

* Iranian expatriates from families formerly allied with the deposed Shah of Iran, who are enormously wealthy and influential and are eager to play Chalabi in Tehran. Watch them as key sources of disinformation.

* Al-Qaeda, which is seeking to "sharpen contradictions" by provoking serial fights between the US and Muslim powers. It would especially like to see a US- Shiite struggle, so that its two major enemies would both be weakened and pre-occupied with each other rather than Bin Laden.

These five forces are, obviously, disparate and in other regards at odds with one another. But all would like to see a US war against Iran. We will see a process whereby any lie issuing from any of them is amplified by the others, creating a multiplier effect. In particular, AIPAC and the military-industrial complex have enormous weight with Congress and the White House, and can push for the war domestically even as the other forces feed US intelligence disinformation abroad.

Iran is 3 times more populous than Iraq, however, and its population is highly mobilized and nationalistic. A US invasion force there will be greeted in a way that will make Iraq seem tame. Moreover, the fallout from Shiites in Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq itself (who will almost universally side with Iran against the US in any war) will put US troops and citizens in enormous danger. And that, my friends, is a scenario we are very probably looking at if Bush gets back in.

Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. His books include Sacred Space And Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam and Broken Wings: A Novel. This article first appeared in his weblog Informed Comment, Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion. He can be reached at: