Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Difference A Letter Makes

The 9/11 Commission is about to release a report containing shocking details of close ties to al-Qaeda and a close working relationship with the terrorist organization.  The only catch is, this relationship is not between Iraq and al-Qaeda, but rather Iraq's neighbor Iran.  But what difference does one letter make?
As reported in the New York Times, "The evidence about an Iran-Qaeda tie contrasts sharply with what the Sept. 11 commission staff has concluded is a dearth of intelligence showing a working relationship between Iraq and the terror network, a judgment that has alarmed the White House since it appears to undermine a central justification of last year's invasion of Iraq."
Time Magazine quotes Thomas Kean, Republican chairman of the 9/11 Commission, "We believe....that there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."

The many ties, connections and collaborations are detailed in the Time Magazine article: 
1.  Harboring al-Qaeda:  "A senior U.S. official told TIME that the Commission has uncovered evidence suggesting that between eight and ten of the 14 'muscle' hijackers-that is, those involved in gaining control of the four 9/11 aircraft and subduing the crew and passengers-passed through Iran in the period from October 2000 to February 2001. Sources also tell TIME that Commission investigators found that Iran had a history of allowing al-Qaeda members to enter and exit Iran across the Afghan border. This practice dated back to October 2000, with Iranian officials issuing specific instructions to their border guards-in some cases not to put stamps in the passports of al-Qaeda personnel-and otherwise not harass them and to facilitate their travel across the frontier."
"Since 9/11 the U.S. has held direct talks with Iran-and through intermediaries including Britain, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia-concerning the fate of scores of al-Qaeda that Iran has acknowledged are in the country, including an unspecified number of senior leaders, whom one senior U.S. official called al-Qaeda's 'management council'. The U.S. as well as the Saudis have unsuccessfully sought the repatriation of this group, which is widely thought to include Saad bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden, as well of other key al-Qaeda figures."
2. Overtures for Collaboration:  "The senior official also told TIME that the report will note that Iranian officials approached the al-Qaeda leadership after the bombing of the USS Cole and proposed a collaborative relationship in future attacks on the U.S., but the offer was turned down by bin Laden because he did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia. "  The reluctance on the part of Bin Laden was likely in consideration for religious cleavages as Saudi Arabia is predominately Sunni while Iran is almost entirely Shiite, as well as historical political animosity between the two regional powers (which is also due in large part to sectarian hostility).
3. Working Relationship:  "These findings follow a Commission staff report, released in June, which suggested that al-Qaeda may have collaborated with Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, a key American military barracks in Saudi Arabia."
Now consider for a moment the tenuous and shaky evidence used to support the claims of a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda.  There is one documented meeting between Iraqi officials and al-Qaeda leadership that took place in Sudan in the mid-90's, and some other less documented communications that resulted in no collaboration.  The meeting in Sudan served as a pretext for al-Qaeda's request for aid from Iraq, which Iraq subsequently ignored.  Then there is the dubious alleged meeting between 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta and an Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague, Czech Republic in 2001.  Despite the claim by Vice President Cheney that the possibility that such a meeting occurred cannot be ruled out entirely, Czech intelligence officials, as well as the FBI and CIA, claim that the evidence strongly suggests that such a meeting never happened.
What is worse though is the calamitous results the invasion of Iraq has had on our overstretched and overtaxed U.S. military forces, and how this has diminished our capacity to use the threat of force as a deterrent, especially for nations such as Iran.  This lack of a credible threat has had serious reprecussions on the policy initiatives of Iran.  First, a look at how our recent foreign policy has impacted Iran.  In the first of two expensive and asset draining conflicts, the U.S. military toppled a hostile regime on Iran's eastern front (the Taliban) leaving the warlords to step into the power vacuum, with the most powerful warlords currently in power being pro-Iranian Shiites.  Then we took out Iran's long time nemesis, and frequent adversary, in the west (Saddam Hussein), and we left behind what will eventually be an extremely pro-Iranian Shiite government in its wake.
For Shiites, a minority Muslim sect that have suffered violent repression for centuries at the hands of the Sunni majority, sectarian ties almost always transcend national borders, which were drawn more or less arbitrarily in the early part of the 20th Century.  For example, during and after the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam often lashed out at the Shiites in the south for providing aid to the Iranians. These were some of his bloodiest crackdowns.
Another boon for Iran, has come in the realm of public perception. As reported in a Knight-Ridder article (6/24/04) "The protracted war with insurgents in Iraq has also weakened America's standing in the region. Many people across the Middle East have begun to embrace Iran's vision of the United States as a 'Great Satan.' America's aim of bringing democracy to the region doesn't square with what they see happening. Instead, they're convinced that American policy is aimed at controlling the Middle East's vast oil reserves and subduing both Shiite and Sunni Muslims."
As Iran gains influence and power in the region, and inches closer to nuclear capacity, the U.S. is left with fewer options to take due to our overstretched military and intelligence apparatuses. As Sy Hersh reported, senior intelligence officials acknowledged this predicament in relation to Iran: "we know we can't attack them right now, they know we can't attack them, and what's worse, they know that we know we can't attack them."  
Iran knows we won't invade. They are aware that we are hamstrung and lack the military manpower to effectively deal with them.  It is now more than clear that it is not effective to topple a regime, such as Iran's, if a more vile, threatening, anti-American regime should rise up in its wake because we are not willing or able to successfully reconstruct the country.  It is also now apparent that such an invasion would galvanize popular support around the extremist hard-liners, while the moderate reformist voices will be muted or side-lined, which would be counter-productive to say the least.
There is also this added twist with Iran: If we were to invade Iran at this point, the Iraqi Shiites would rise up against us in open revolt and we will have lost Iraq completely. We would be fighting a two front war, and Iran thinks we won't be willing to do that. They're probably right.
Because of this, and other factors, Iran is openly taunting us. They are harboring many senior al-Qaeda leaders and refusing to extradite them to the US or even Saudi Arabia, aggressively pursuing an advanced nuclear program (with much of the material and technology coming from Pakistan), and sending intelligence and military ops in Iraq to arm, fund, indoctrinate and train Shiite militias hostile to the U.S. presence, in particular Al Sadr's Mahdi Army.  Iranian troops are also reportedly guarding the most influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani.   Iran seems to be covering all bases in its effort to cultivate support among the majority Iraqi Shiites.
Iran will be the unintended victor for our great mis-adventure in Iraq, and they will be emboldened by their increased prominence and our diminished capacity to respond with military force. But at least Saddam won't be able to give his vast stockpiles of WMDs to his extensive array of long established allies in al-Qaeda.


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