Iran and al-Qa’ida: Can the Charges Be Substantiated?

Last week, the Obama Administration formally charged the Islamic Republic of working with al-Qa’ida.  The charge was presented as part of the Treasury Department’s announcement that it was designating six alleged al-Qa’ida operatives for terrorism-related financial sanctions.  The six are being designated, according to Treasury, because of their involvement in transiting money and operatives for al-Qa’ida to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The announcement claims that part of this scheme was a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al-Qa’ida, whereby Tehran allowed the terrorist group to use Iranian territory in the course of moving money and personnel.

For the most part, major media outlets uncritically transmitted the Obama Administration’s charge, without much manifestation of serious effort to verify it, find out more about the sourcing upon which it was based, or place it in any sort of detailed and nuanced historical context.  Stories by Joby Warrick in the Washington Post and Helene Cooper the New York Times exemplify this kind of “reporting.”

For nearly ten years, a cadre of hawkish analysts, politicians, and some Iranian expatriates have pushed their insistent but unsubstantiated claims of extensive collaboration between the Islamic Republic and al-Qa’ida.  Some even charged that Osama bin Ladin was “living in luxury” in Iran, an assertion later elaborated in a 2010 “documentary” film that was extensively “covered” on Fox News.

During her service at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and at the National Security Council in 2001-2003, Hillary was one of a handful of U.S. officials who participated in nearly two years of substantive talks with Iranian counterparts about Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida.

Since leaving government, we — and other former U.S. officials knowledgeable about the U.S.-Iranian dialogue over these matters — have related how the Iranians raised, almost immediately after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the problem of al-Qa’ida personnel trying to make their way from Afghanistan into Iran, consistently warning about the difficulties of securing Iran’s 936 kilometer-long border with Afghanistan (as well as its 700 kilometer-long border with Pakistan).

We and others have also related how Tehran documented its detention of literally hundreds of suspected al-Qa’ida operatives, repatriated as many of these detainees to their countries of origin as it could, and requested U.S. assistance in facilitating repatriations of detainees whose governments did not want to cooperate (a request the Bush Administration denied).

Furthermore, we described how, over the course of 2002 and early 2003, Bush Administration hardliners made substantive discussion and coordination with Iran over Iraq dependent on Tehran finding, arresting, and deporting a small number of specific al-Qa’ida figures — beyond the hundreds of suspected al-Qa’ida operatives the Islamic Republic had already apprehended — that Washington suspected had sought refuge in Iran’s lawless Sistan-Balochistan province.  Although Tehran deployed additional security forces to its eastern borders, Iranian officials acknowledged that a small group of al-Qa’ida figures had managed to avoid capture and enter Iranian territory, most likely through Sistan-Balochistan, in 2002.  The Iranian government located and took some of these individuals into custody and said that others identified by the United States were either dead or not in Iran.  At the beginning of May 2003, after Baghdad had fallen, Tehran offered to exchange the remaining al-Qa’ida figures in Iran for a small group of MEK commanders in Iraq, with the treatment of those repatriated to Iran monitored by the International Committee for the Red Cross and a commitment not to apply the death penalty to anyone prosecuted on their return.  But the Bush Administration rejected any deal.

Today, much of the American media unquestioningly “reports” information provided by the U.S. government about Iran’s supposed links to al-Qa’ida, noting, as Helene Cooper does in her story, that U.S. “officials admit that they are largely in the dark about what is going on with the Qaeda operatives believed to be in Iran.”  But the only reason why the United States does not know more or have a cooperative relationship with the Islamic Republic over al-Qa’ida is that Washington cut off talks with Tehran over al-Qa’ida and Afghanistan in late May 2003.  This decision was supposedly taken because the Defense Department claimed to have a communications intercept indicating that an al-Qa’ida figure inside Iran might have been involved in the May 12, 2003 Riyadh terrorist bombings.  But the claim was never substantiated and was disputed by much of the U.S. Intelligence Community; by 2007, the Bush Administration was reduced to telling the Washington Post that “there are suspicions, but no proof” that an al-Qa’ida figures in Iran “may have been involved from afar in planning” the May 2003 attacks.

Not even the George W. Bush Administration was prepared to make concrete accusations that the Islamic Republic was deliberately facilitating al-Qa’ida’s terrorist activities.  Now, however, the Obama Administration is advancing specific, on-the-record charges that Iran is helping al-Qa’ida.  There is no reason for anyone to have any confidence that official Washington “knows,” in any empirically serious way, that Tehran is cooperating with al-Qa’ida in the ways that are alleged.

Of the six al-Qa’ida operatives sanctioned by the Treasury Department last week, only one is alleged to be physically present in Iran — and, by Treasury’s own account, he is there primarily to get al-Qa’ida prisoners out of Iranian jails.  Moreover, the United States apparently has no hard evidence that the Iranian government is supportive of or even knowledgeable about the alleged al-Qa’idanetwork in the Islamic Republic.  In her story, Helene Cooper writes that a “senior Administration official” said “in a conference call for reporters” (which means that the White House wanted everyone to hear this, and Helene did not have to leave her office to hear it), that “our sense is this network is operating through Iranian territory with the knowledge and at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities.”  A “sense” that al-Qa’ida is operating in Iran with “at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities” now apparently amounts to proof of a “secret deal” that can be authoritatively referenced in the announcement of a legally and politically significant action by the Treasury Department.

This is all strongly reminiscent of the way in which the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations prepared the way for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.  And much of the mainstream media seems content to reprise the dishonorable role they played in making that war possible.  As her pre-war reporting on Saddam Husayn’s weapons of mass destruction programs unraveled in the war’s aftermath, Judy Miller of the New York Times sought to defend herself by arguing that “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself.”  Ms. Miller may no longer be at the New York Times.  But it seems that her spirit lives on there, at the Washington Post, and in too many other journalistic venues.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 1 August 2011 under a Creative Commons license. 

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