Bush, CIA at Odds on Iran

Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terror and as a potential nuclear power is once again making the news in recent days. Three interesting pieces appear in today’s papers.

NYT – President Says U.S. to Examine Iran-Qaeda Tie [RSS]

President Bush said on Monday that the United States was actively investigating ties between the Iranian government and Al Qaeda, including intelligence unearthed by the independent Sept. 11 commission showing that Iran may have offered safe passage to terrorists who were later involved in the attacks. . . . Intelligence officials have said emphatically that while Iran’s Muslim fundamentalist leaders appeared to have offered a transit point to some of the Sept. 11 terrorists and other Qaeda members, there was nothing to indicate that Iran knew in advance about the plot.

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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. Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the commission’s report would offer extensive new evidence to show that Iran had provided logistical support over the years to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. Most alarmingly, they said, the commission recently obtained intelligence showing that Iran had allowed as many as 10 of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks to pass through border stations in late 1990 and early 1991 without having their passports stamped, making it easier for them to enter the United States without raising suspicions.

In his television interview on Sunday, Mr. McLaughlin said eight of the hijackers had passed through Iran “at some point in their passage along their operational path.” But he cautioned that the C.I.A. did not have evidence to implicate Iran in the attacks. “We have no evidence that there is some sort of official sanction by the government of Iran for this activity,” he said. “We have no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11.”

In his meeting with reporters on Monday, Mr. Bush seemed to suggest that despite the C.I.A.’s appraisal, the administration believed there might in fact be an Iranian connection to Sept. 11.
“As to direct connections with September the 11th, you know we’re digging into the facts to determine if there was one,” he said. “We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved.” He also said: “I have long expressed my concerns about Iran. After all, it’s a totalitarian society where free people are not allowed to, you know, exercise their rights as human beings.” He said, “This has been an issue that I have been concerned about ever since I’ve been the president.”

The LA Times version of the story, “Bush, CIA at Odds on Iran,” emphasizes the divergence between the Administration and DCI McLaughlin. I’ve only excerpted the Iran portion; the remainder discusses the differences over consolidation of the intelligence service.

President Bush said Monday that his administration was investigating possible links between Iran and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a statement that distanced the president from acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, who had downplayed a possible connection a day earlier.
“As to direct connections with Sept. 11, we’re digging into the facts to determine if there was one,” Bush said of Iran.

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The independent commission is widely expected to report that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had traveled freely between Iran and Afghanistan during 2000 and 2001. Last month, the panel’s chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, said in a television interview that Al Qaeda had “a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq.” Iran’s emerging prominence in the Sept. 11 investigations looms as a potentially difficult issue for the White House, because it could raise new questions about why Bush led a war against Iraq but so far has taken a distinctly less bellicose stance toward Iran.

McClellan argued that the United States indeed had been “confronting” the threat from Iran, which Bush in 2002 listed, along with Iraq and North Korea, as part of an “axis of evil.” He added, however, that Iraq was “a unique situation” because it had invaded its neighbors and had possessed and used weapons of mass destruction. McClellan also said the White House was eager to learn what the Sept. 11 commission knew about any connections between the hijackers and Iran. “Apparently it’s something that’s evolved over time,” he said. The Iranian government has denied knowledge or involvement in the Sept. 11 plot. McLaughlin had said Sunday that although “about eight” of the Sept. 11 hijackers may have passed through Iran before their mission, the CIA had “no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11.” Bush on Monday noted McLaughlin’s comments, but said: “We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved.”

The president also renewed his accusation that Iran’s rulers were “harboring Al Qaeda leadership,” and urged Tehran anew to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The United States has asked Iran to turn over Al Qaeda members to their respective countries.

There is a reason Iran is part of the “Axis of Evil” and one of the original states on the State Department terrorist list. Since the rise of the Khomeini regime in 1979, Iran emerged as the central sponsor of jihadist terror, a position they have occupied ever since. The question, of course, is what to do about it. There is little doubt, for example, that Iran was more dangerous than Iraq in early 2003, when we made the decision to go to war with Iraq. It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that we should have gone to war with Iran, instead. There is ample evidence of a significant reform movement taking place within Iran that could wrest control of power; there was no such evidence with respect to Iran, where Saddam and his sons had an iron grip on power.

A piece in the Washington Times, “2 U.S. ex-officials urge engaging Iran,” reports on policy recommendations offered by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Bob Gates which are, to say the least, counterintuitive.

The key to advancing U.S. interests in the Middle East is to engage Iran’s Islamic regime, partly by allowing Tehran to develop a peaceful nuclear program, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argued yesterday. By agreeing with the European Union that Iran could acquire enriched uranium at market prices while applying stringent inspection rules, Washington could end decades of political stalemate with Tehran and win an essential ally in the region, he said. Washington has lost its influence over Iran’s nuclear policy as well as policies toward terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan, said Mr. Brzezinski and former CIA Director Robert M. Gates, and the best way to advance U.S. leverage was through selective engagement with Tehran. “It’s not a question that we and the Iranians would be sitting down and singing ‘kumbaya’ together — but of advancing our national interests,” Mr. Gates said. He and Mr. Brzezinski are joint chairmen of a report on Iran sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“This is a whole new game, a new global Balkans, with Iran in the middle with the capacity to influence Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mr. Brzezinski said.

Mr. Gates and Mr. Brzezinski said the United States should end its 25 years of antagonism toward Tehran and pursue a policy of selective engagement, including dropping U.S. objections to an Iranian civilian nuclear program under strict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and multilateral sanctions. Such an approach would engage Tehran — which they argued had managed to isolate Washington through international trade links and largely constructive relations with neighbors — and get the European Union, Russia and Japan on board, they said.

I’m skeptical of our ability to work with Iran while the mullahs are still in charge. Still, I have a great deal of respect for the insights of both these men and certainly acknowledge their greater expertise on the matter. Their ideas here are definitely worth serious examination.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Intelligence, Middle East, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Joseph Marshall says:

    Also worthy of serious examination are the following figures I found at GlobalSecurity.org:

    “As of early May 2004, there are some 250,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen deployed in support of combat, peacekeeping, and deterrence operations. This figure does not include those forces normally present in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom or Japan… If one were to include these forces the number of deployed troops worldwide would be around 350,000.

    …As of 26 May 2004 roughly 145,400 soldiers from the Guard and Reserves were on active duty…Of the 12 aircraft carrier strike groups that are in the fleet the Navy has 2 currently deployed…Of the 295 ships and submarines in the Fleet roughly 99 are currently on deployments.”

    This may go a long way to explaining why our response to Iran has been so consistently low-key, as well as why the issue of the draft keeps floating out there.

    I sincerely hope the President reviews these figures before he presses the investigation of the links between 9/11 and Iran too hard or too fast.