Sen. John McCain's confusion in recent allegations
of Iranian training of al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq is the result of a drumbeat
of official propaganda about close Iran-al-Qaeda ties that the George W. Bush
administration and neoconservatives have promoted ever since early 2002.
McCain, the Republican nominee for the presidency, was confusing the Bush administration's
charges of Iranian training of Shi'a militiamen associated with the Mahdi Army
with the administration's propaganda theme of Iranian tacit or explicit support
for al-Qaeda operatives in Iran charges which have amplified by right-wing
During a press conference in Jordan Tuesday, McCain brought up the charge that
Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives and sending them to Iraq, then corrected
himself after Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, whispered
in his ear. It was the fourth time in a little over three weeks, however, that
McCain had made the same charge.
McCain's confusion has been widely characterized as demonstrating his inability
to distinguish Sunni al-Qaeda from Shi'ite Mahdi Army. But more fundamentally,
McCain's gaffes were a reflection of how thoroughly he had internalized a favorite
theme of the Bush administration and neoconservatives that Iran has tolerated
and even covertly assisted al-Qaeda agents operating inside Iran.
Those administration charges have continued despite the repeated release of
information by Iran and other countries about its arrest, detention and repatriation
of al-Qaeda suspects.
That charge has been given credence by mainstream news media for years.
The theme of an Iran-al-Qaeda link first appeared in the wake of the defeat
of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Although most al-Qaeda cadres escaped
to Pakistan, a much smaller number crossed the border into Iran. Despite the
fact that US officials later said Iran had been responsive to US communications
about intercepting al-Qaeda cadres at the border, then Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld stated on more than one occasion in 2002 that Iran was "harboring"
That was same term Bush had used in his Sep. 20, 2001 speech as criterion for
considering a nation to be a "hostile regime" in regard to terrorism.
The Bush propaganda line was taken so seriously by the news media that the
Washington Post reported Aug. 28, 2002 that "Arab intelligence sources"
were saying that two high-ranking al-Qaeda officials were being "sheltered
in Iran along with dozens of other al-Qaeda fighters in hotels and guesthouses
in the border cities of Mashad and Zabol."
The Post said the report "supported the Bush administration's long-standing
assertion that Iran or at least hardliners in the conservative clerical
line of authority that controls the army and intelligence services is
harboring al-Qaeda fighters."
In spring 2003, Iran declared that it was holding senior members of al-Qaeda
but refused to divulge their identities and proposed to exchange information
on its al-Qaeda detainees in return for the US providing Iran with information
on the anti-Iran terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalk (MEK) which had surrendered
to US troops in Iraq. But hardliners in the Bush administration rejected such
a deal, on the grounds that MEK should be protected from Iran.
After the May 12, 2003 terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed eight
US citizens and 26 Saudis, Rumsfeld declared, "We know there are senior
al-Qaeda in Iran...presumably not an ungoverned area." Then CBS news reported,
"US officials say they have evidence the bombings in Saudi Arabia and
other attacks still in the works were planned and directed by senior al-Qaeda
operatives who have found safe haven in Iran."
That was an obvious ploy to insinuate that Iran was deliberately allowing al-Qaeda
operatives to plan terrorist attacks from Iranian territory. The New York
Times reported May 26, 2003, however, that the Rumsfeld statement was disputed
by another unnamed administration official who observed that the intercepted
messages did not necessarily refer to the Saudi bombing at all.
Former US officials familiar with the intelligence on the matter say there
was never any clear evidence that any al-Qaeda detainees were being allowed
to operate freely. Paul Pillar, the intelligence officer on Iran at the time,
said in an interview in 2006, "It was very fuzzy whether they were free
to do things or not."
Lawrence Wilkerson, later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell,
recalled in an interview, "The Iran experts agreed that, even if al-Qaeda
had come in and out of Iran, it didn't mean the Iranian government was complicit."
Iran did hand over 225 suspected al-Qaeda operatives to their country of origin
in 2003, and provided their names to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia confirmed
that Iran had repatriated suspected al-Qaeda of Saudi nationality.
Nevertheless, Bush administration officials carried out a determined campaign
of press leaks in 2003 and 2004 suggesting covert Iranian support for al-Qaeda
A typical example of such press leaks is a CNN story on Oct. 27, 2003 quoting
"US intelligence officials" as saying that the "Quds Force"
of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "may be sheltering some al-Qaeda leaders, including its military commander, Saif al-Adel and Saad bin Laden,
son of the al-Qaeda leader."
On Mar. 24, 2003, the New York Times reported from Tel Aviv that senior
al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had "turned up in Iran" under
the protection of Iranian security forces, according to senior Israeli and US
But in the Arab-language London daily Asharq Alawsat, usually known
for its anti-Iran coverage, published an article by Mahammed al-Shafey in 2005
which quoted an internet posting by al-Adel in which he recalled that approximately
80 percent of the group of al-Qaeda operatives led by al-Zarqawi which had fled
to Iran had been arrested and the rest had fled to Iraq.
According to al-Adel, "The steps taken by Iran against us shook [us] and
caused the failure of 75 percent of our plan."
The high point of the Iran-al-Qaeda theme was the spate of stories in the week
before the publication of the 9/11 Commission report in July 2004, reporting
that the Iranian government had facilitated the transit of eight Sep. 11 hijackers
But CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin said the CIA had "no evidence"
of any official Iranian approval of the transit.
In July 2005, Iran's intelligence minister Ali Younessi said Iran had apprehended
more than 1,000 members of al-Qaeda since late 2001. Younessi said that some
al-Qaeda agents had taken refuge in Iranian cities but had been arrested "because
they intended to use Iranian territory to launch terrorist strikes on other
He also referred to the arrests and trial of a number of Ansar al-Islam operatives
who he said were "still in prison."
(Inter Press Service)