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The Mullahs' Manhattan Project

From the June 9, 2003 issue: Do we dare let these men acquire nukes?

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THE POSSIBLE recrudescence of Iranian-supported anti-American terrorism is obviously an immediate concern for Washington. The specter of al Qaeda taking refuge in Iran, and from there waging war against the United States, isn't something, like the attack against Khobar, that can be bureaucratically shuffled by the State Department into our inactive memory. Association with al Qaeda is an inexcusable no-no, even among Washington's most hard-core, trade-loving Republican realpoliticians and conflict-averse liberals and diplomats. Which is, in part, why those who have favored reestablishing some "dialogue" between Washington and Tehran about Iran's nuclear program and its influence in post-Saddam Iraq have uniformly reacted with skepticism toward recent Pentagon and State Department statements about an operationally live al Qaeda presence inside the Islamic Republic.

One Bush administration official, according to the New York Times, describes the hawk-dove division on Iran within the U.S. intelligence community. There is disagreement, the official says, about what recent intercepts and "so-called chatter" mean--"whether it represents a link to the Saudi bombings or to the Iranian regime." (Which provokes the question: If the intercepts are of al Qaeda members talking to the Iranian regime, are these low-level, "harmless" al Qaeda Arab footsoldiers hiding in the foothills or villages of non-Arabic-speaking Iranian Kurdistan and Baluchistan, and if so, why would the Iranian regime be talking to them?) The Times adds that some "officials" suspect that al Qaeda forces, who've fled from northern Iraq, might be using "Iranian territory temporarily but not necessarily with the approval of the government in Tehran, or [emphasis added] that while some parts of the Iran government want them to leave, others want them to stay." This type of Iran observer consistently divides and subdivides responsibility for nefarious Iranian actions into small extremist cabals. Do this enough and one can even exempt Hojjat-ol-Islam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, two of the principal powers in Iranian politics for over 20 years, from any responsibility for terrorism.

Getting it right on al Qaeda is an urgent issue for the Bush administration. If the White House concludes that bin Laden's organization is operationally alive in Iran--and this couldn't have happened without the support of the ruling mullahs--then the administration tempts an ugly fate by not responding militarily to the clerical regime's blatant provocation. Iran's ministry of intelligence and Revolutionary Guards Corps and the ruling clerics who control these institutions need to know that any cooperation with al Qaeda will lead to a ferocious American counterstrike against these institutions and the individuals who oversee them. If the ruling clerics know that we know al Qaeda holy warriors inside Iran were connected in any operational way with the May 12 suicide-bombings in Saudi Arabia, and we do nothing in response, then the Bush administration is clearly telling Rafsanjani and Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's two kingpins, that American calculations and reflexes have not really changed since the Clinton years. It is important to remember that clerical Iran in its terrorist attacks against the United States in Lebanon in 1983 and in Saudi Arabia in 1996 actually didn't try hard to hide its hand. Its efforts were nonetheless sufficient to allow Washington to choose moderation and restraint.

After the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration let out an alarm about al Qaeda gaining refuge in Iran. The issue, for whatever reason, was then dropped. If that information was good--and it would be wise to compare closely the intercept and human intelligence from that episode with this one--then the Bush administration has already established one bad precedent. The restoration of American awe in the Middle East accomplished by the Iraq war could be considerably undone by a successful Iranian probing action. So, is the information the U.S. government possesses on an Iranian-al Qaeda connection good?