same techniques used to get up the Iraq war are now being applied by the
political Right in the United States, including President
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.
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,
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
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." . . .
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
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.
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
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
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
* 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
Broken Wings: A Novel. This article first appeared in his weblog
Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion. He can be reached at: